Saturday, December 19, 2015

The Biggest Match of the Year

 There's been a fair amount written about Monday's match against Arsenal already. The tie is quite obviously important, as it is a match between two of the front-runners and could very well help decide where the title goes in May. And yet I feel that its importance may even be undersold somewhat, at least from the City side of things. The Monchengladbach and Swansea wins have moved the pressure off, but City have been really poor in the league for the past month and a half. If they lose to Arsenal, not only will it be a blow from a title rival, but it will be a continuation of City's malaise, something rather more threatening to their championship hopes.

Quick, when was the last game City won convincingly in the Premier League? Some might say the match home to Southampton, but I'd argue you'd have to go back to the match against Bournemouth to find a truly dominant display, and that was back in October. The stats for the most recent six games tell a sad tale:

Matches Poss Off Eff Def Eff Diff FR Opp FR
Recent 6 56.67 94.77 132.48 -37.71 25.00% 25.81%
All 57.13 126.43 90.70 35.73 30.10% 28.57%

As you can see, our offensive and defensive efficiency (which measure shots on target per 1000 minutes of possession and opponents' shots on target per 1000 minutes of opponents' possession respectively) have worsened dramatically. The Finish Rate (percentage of shots on target that are goals) has also declined, likely due to Aguero being out for most of the period. Our shots on target difference during this run is just 13th in the Premier League and that's despite facing the easiest schedule (per opponent points per game) over that timeframe.We really need some better performances, which our season totals show is possible, and it needs to start against Arsenal.

One notable aspect of this City season so far is a lack of wins against the better sides in the league. The win over Chelsea to start the year felt big based on the clubs respective positions in the previous season, but Chelsea's utter collapse has put that in a different context. City have failed to win against any of the current Top 5 this year (with Leicester also still to play), and have only beaten Watford, Crystal Palace, and Everton of teams in the top half. Even in the Champions League, City lost twice to Juventus, the best opponent in the group, despite eventually winning the group. A good performance against Arsenal would be a welcome reversal of this trend, and confirm that City actually do deserve to be title favorites.

Are there any reasons for this downturn in form? Obviously, injuries have played a part. Silva, Aguero, and Kompany are the spine of the team and missing them hurts quite a bit. There are also the knock-on affects of the rest of the squad playing heavy minutes, which both De Bruyne and Sagna have admitted was an issue in the press. But there's also been an obvious tactical problem against counter-attacking sides that don't play with a central striker. Against both Stoke and Liverpool (and to a lesser extent Swansea), City were overrun in midfield with attackers moving into positions between the back four and the fairly toothless duo of Toure and Fernandinho, and then runners going behind the static back line. This is something that Arsenal will most likely try and replicate, with Theo Walcott as the false nine making runs beyond the back line and Ozil and Sanchez playing as attacking mids behind him. The fact that this tactical weakness is something that Arsenal can really exploit is another worrying factor. If City can correct it (by playing Delph alongside Fernandinho and moving Toure forward perhaps) and go on to beat one of the best teams in the league, that would really serve notice that there is no one way to beat City.

In short, a convincing win against Arsenal is important for three reasons beyond simple league position. It would stop the run of poor form in the Premier League, prove that City can beat teams of a high caliber, and show that they don't have any obvious weaknesses. I still believe this squad is the best in the league, but it's high time they show it once again. Beating Arsenal would be a great way to start.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Swan Dive

Back at the end of August, right before an earlier enforced break in the soccer calendar to celebrate nationalist sentiments, Swansea were doing pretty well. Undefeated and on 8 points, the Swans were sitting in the top 4, recording a draw with Chelsea and a defeat of Man United. More than that though, a lot of the advanced statistics were supporting their place in the table, leading to several commentators saying that they were "for real", including this tweet by Michael Caley:
Now, Swansea sit 14th in the table, despite having faced one of the weaker schedules in the Premier League (in terms of opponent points per match). They have a -4 goal difference, and while their shots on target difference is better (+.5 shots per game), their expected goals difference is now negative as well. So what happened?

For me, the answer becomes clear if we look at Swansea's first two matches. In the 52' minute of the Chelsea match, Thibaut Courtois received a red card, reducing Chelsea to ten men. Chelsea had one shot on target the rest of the way, Swansea had five (including Gomis' penalty). Against Newcastle, Daryl Janmaat picked up a red card in the 42nd minute, reducing the Magpies to ten men. Newcastle had no shots on target following the dismissal, Swansea had three including Ayew's insurance goal. In both games, the red card allowed Swansea to dominate proceedings in a way that was not happening when the opposing team had a full complement of players. This is hardly surprising, given that only one team this season has gone on to prevail when one of their players received a red card with more than 15 minutes remaining (Chelsea against West Brom, for those wondering). A man advantage is such a huge bonus that it becomes hard to take statistics from such games seriously (see City v. West Brom last year), and Swansea's early season stats undeniably got a huge boost from those two matches being included, and led to them being overrated early on (their dismantling of relegation-bound Sunderland didn't hurt either).

Should games with red cards be included in a team's statistics? Obviously, that depends on the question you are trying to answer. If you were making the case that Swansea were playing very well in the first four games, I absolutely think those should be included. In both cases, the red cards were probably deserved, and Swansea did go on to perform at a high level in those games. If you are making the case that they were likely to continue to perform well (as the above prognosticators were), I think they probably shouldn't be included (or at least not stats following the red card), particularly in such a small sample. Red cards are relatively rare events, there were only 71 in 380 Premier League matches last term, and there are even fewer that actually had an impact on the game (due to the accumulation of yellows and general ref tendencies, red cards are more likely to be shown late in matches). Even if the red cards were earned by Swansea's play, the stats accumulated from when they were 11 v 10 is probably not reflective of their true talent level. Moreover, as we saw with James McCarthy's tackle on Dmitri Payet this past week, deserved reds are not always given by refs, and there is no way for Swansea to control the referees (short of channeling Alex Ferguson).

There's still a definite shortage of good data out there on football, and oftentimes the tendency is to use whatever we can get. Still, I think this is example shows that it's just as important to know when to exclude data as it is when to use it.

Monday, November 9, 2015

The Second City

Upon winning the FA Cup in 2011, Manchester City fans serenaded Patrick Vieira for his incredible accomplishment: "Patrick Vieira, he's won it five times!" His glittering club and international career as a player is indeed impressive, and he played with a tenacity and grace that is rarely combined in a footballer. Now the former France midfielder has been appointed manager of New York City FC, despite having won zero games as a manager of a professional team. City Football Group, having parted ways with Jason Kreis, felt that the former manager of the Elite Development Squad at Manchester City was the best choice for the role, and most of the fans agree with them:

And yet, I can't help but feel disappointed by the change, as once again City Football Group are putting the needs of Manchester first, and leaving the greatest city in the world in second.

It's easy to see the logic from City Football Group here. Vieira is a high-profile name capable of controlling big stars like Lampard, Villa, and Pirlo. City's hierarchy rate Vieira very highly and clearly see him as a long-term successor to Pellegrini (or Guardiola), and moving him into management at a sister club gives him a chance to take the next step in his development. There's also no question that Kreis underwhelmed as NYCFC manager. Making the playoffs always seemed to be an exceedingly high target, particularly since Lampard and Pirlo didn't join until midway through. However, a porous defense, attack highly dependent on star power to bail out a poor system based on meaningless possession, and misuse (or non-use) of players like Poku and Shay Facey was probably enough to convince CFG that Kreis wasn't the right choice in the long-term. A change needed to be made, and CFG had someone ready and willing to step in who would be able to help the City philosophy take hold in New York. Perfect fit.

However, it's difficult to see such compelling reasons from the NYCFC side of things. There are certainly more experienced options out there for the role. Vieira did have a fantastic playing career, but that by no means guarantees success as a manager (as this recent Gab Marcotti post documents). He managed the EDS side, but that should in theory have a different fundamental goal (player development) than a professional team (winning matches). He has no experience with MLS, either as a manager or a player. The appointment is bound to be short-term, given his and CFG's evident long-term plan to groom him for the Manchester City job. There's no doubt he is an intelligent observer of the game and is a promising coach, but NYCFC are obviously expected to achieve success on a short timetable and an inexperience manager is unlikely to hit the ground running without any hiccups.

This is not to say that Vieira won't succeed at NYCFC. He certainly could, and a full year with Lampard, Pirlo, and Villa could lift NYCFC into the playoffs next year. But it's yet another example, as with the Lampard fiasco and several other incidents, that the decisions being made at NYCFC are made with Manchester City primarily in mind, and this could do long-term damage to the emerging fanbase of NYCFC. New York City FC and Manchester City FC are often described as "sister clubs", but to me it looks more and more like there's a mothership in Manchester, and everything else revolves around it.

Monday, November 2, 2015

City Is Kevin De Bruyne's Team Already

After scoring the winner against Sevilla two weeks ago, Kevin De Bruyne was asked if he could have imagined such a fine start to life at Manchester City. He replied, "Probably not. It feels good. Obviously I know I didn’t play my best game here but I am very happy to give the team the three points and it was very important for us." Lost in the admiration of his winner was the fact that he was absolutely correct in his assessment: for large stretches of the game, he misplaced passes and was caught in possession time and time again. At the same time, he was responsible for the moment of brilliance that won the game, and it's fair to say we probably wouldn't have won without him. This game was a perfect illustration on how dependent City have become on De Bruyne, and why he'll need to keep improving in order to keep City at the top in the Premier League and Europe.

In order to demonstrate De Bruyne's influence on City's attack, I'd like to use a stat called Usage Rate. Borrowed from basketball analysis, it looks at how many possessions a team has (measured by counting total shots, unsuccessful passes, and unsuccessful take-ons) and what percentage of them a given player is responsible for the last action of the possession (has a shot, key pass, unsuccessful pass, or unsuccessful take-on), weighted by minutes played*. It's obviously imperfect, but Usage Rate helps to get a basic statistical understanding of how heavily involved each player is in a team's attack. I have listed City's statistics for the first eleven games of the Premier League season below (players with 180+ minutes only):

Minutes Possessions Used Usage Rate Positive Outcomes Negative Outcomes Ratio
De Bruyne
559 125 19.18% 34 91 27.18%
795 131 14.11% 47 84 35.92%
893 133 12.77% 32 101 24.06%
417 62 12.76% 19 43 30.60%
482 71 12.63% 32 39 45.07%
682 98 12.31% 34 64 34.71%
765 100 11.21% 34 66 33.99%
545 65 10.21% 38 27 58.54%
540 61 9.68% 9 52 14.75%
244 27 9.48% 12 15 44.44%
900 90 8.57% 11 79 12.22%
968 96 8.51% 18 78 18.74%
630 58 7.89% 7 51 12.07%
333 28 7.21% 5 23 17.86%
185 14 6.49% 3 11 21.43%
675 44 5.59% 2 42 4.55%
900 49 4.67% 1 48 2.04%

As you can see, there are some clear trends here. It's not surprising that Hart, three central defenders, and Fernando are the lowest in Usage Rate, as they play positions focused on defending, not attacking. Silva and Toure being near the top also makes sense, as they have been the fulcrums of our attack for the past 5 years. Kolarov's presence shows how much we rely on his width on the left to create problems and his role in set pieces. However, De Bruyne being well above everyone is a surprise, given how new he is to our team and system. He has been critical in filling the void left by Silva as the main playmaker in the side, using up a lot of the possessions the Spaniard would have taken.

The problem is that while he has certainly been very involved in the attack, it hasn't always brought the best results. Of the 125 possessions De Bruyne has used, only 34 had a positive outcome (a shot or key pass) and 91 had a negative outcome (an unsuccessful pass or take-on). That means just 27% of his possessions have positive outcomes, which is the lowest of any attacking mid or forward on the team. To a certain extent, it makes sense that a player's efficiency will drop the more of the ball he sees. Defenses will focus more on him, closing down earlier and not giving him the space to pass or shoot. At the same time, it speaks to the fact that De Bruyne is not the finished article. In the game against Sevilla in particular, he had a lot of unforced passing errors, often trying to get that killer final ball. That's not always a bad thing, given City last year were probably too careful in possession, and could have used someone like De Bruyne who is constantly trying things. However, the number of times he gives the ball away stifles the attack and puts pressure on the defense, especially since we commit our fullbacks (especially Kolarov) to the attack frequently.

I truly believe De Bruyne has the tools to be the best attacking player in the Premier League, as his touch, finishing ability, and eye for a pass are evident for all to see. However, it's only when he's able to marry efficiency and volume that he will be able to take the next step, and help City take the next step as a team.

Note: All data from

*Usually, Usage Rate also weights for league pace (measured by average possessions per game), but given there are no league-wide comparisons (and perhaps more importantly I haven't done the league-wide stats yet), I'm not including for this article.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Preseason Thoughts

The Premier League is back! At least it will be this weekend, when the excitement of actual football will trump everything else. But for now, we have to deal with prediction season, when pundits, and myself, turn to prognostication and hope everyone forgets what they said come the end of the season (like the many who thought Southampton was in big trouble last season). Here are a few thoughts in no particular order on the season to come.

1) Everton are dark horses. Keep in mind, this is essentially the same team that pushed Arsenal all the way in the fight for fourth place two years ago. Assuming they keep John Stones (who I think is a really top defender), I think their first eleven is stronger than Spurs, Liverpool, or Southampton. Plus, they don't have Europe to deal with this year, a key component of their early struggles last campaign. If Tim Howard improves from a nightmarish 2014-15 (or Martinez sends him out to pasture), I think they should easily make the top 6.

2) Cech will be worse than Ospina was last year. I don't quite understand why Arsenal fans were so excited by this signing. After years of substandard goalkeeping, it seemed Arsenal had finally stumbled into a good one in Ospina, who helped Arsenal post an absolutely excellent 19% Opponent's Finish Rate since he replaced Szczesny in January. While Cech did post good save percentages last year, he only started six games, and that was against the murderer's row of Everton, Hull, Newcastle, Swansea, Sunderland, and Arsenal, none of whom are really known for their finishing. He's also 33, and if Mourinho cuts loose a defensive player, it's probably a sign they are past it. Say what you will about the man, he has an eye for defensive talent.

3) Southampton will finally fall apart. I feel bad about this prediction, particularly since I enjoyed them proving me right last year. All congratulations to them for making the Europa League, but there's no doubt it is a drag on a Premier League campaign. Plus, the subtractions this year will hurt a lot more than last, especially since they haven't bought nearly as well. Schneiderlin was their key man in midfield, and Nathaniel Clyne was one of the best right backs in the league. They won't be near the relegation battle, but I think midtable is more realistic than a repeat in the European spots.

4) City will win the title. Not a terribly surprising prediction, given that I've already expressed my doubts about United and Chelsea in previous posts, and Arsenal earlier in this one. With the De Bruyne move edging closer, I think it's safe to say that City will have an incredible attack this time around. The Sterling-Silva combination already looks deadly, and De Bruyne will only help add to the mix. The defense has a Kompany problem, but I think Denayer and Mangala can emerge as a force with Demichelis acting as a tutor. I also think Delph will really help provide more protection than any of our central midfielders did last year, and Yaya will have a bounce-back year with no African Cup of Nations distractions.

No matter what happens, I'm looking forward to watching and having City football truly back in my life. Game on!

Sunday, August 2, 2015

City Can Catch Chelsea

It's now August, and the new Premier League season is rapidly approaching. Teams are starting to take shape, although we still don't know how the transfer market will play out in the final month. Despite all the changes clubs have made, it's still Chelsea who are the bookmaker's favorites to retain their title, ahead of City, Arsenal, and United. On first glance, this makes sense, as they were the best team last season and won the title with three games to spare, even establishing a 15 point advantage with 6 games remaining. However, I think there are reasons for optimism from City fans that Chelsea were not invulnerable last season, haven't improved this offseason, and can be caught.

It's pretty clear Chelsea were indeed the best team in the league last year. More than anything else, they had very few weaknesses, finishing in the top 5 in the league in all five factors (Possession, Defensive Efficiency, Offensive Efficiency, Finish Rate, and Opponent's Finish Rate), the only club to do so. Whereas City at times struggled defensively, and United's sideways passing too often not providing a real threat, Chelsea were a complete team. The addition of Fabregas to their midfield gave the needed creativity, Matic provided the steel, the back four was a wall, and Costa and Hazard provided the goals. However, they did actually finish second in Goal Difference to City, which shows that City weren't all that far back even in a down year. Still, a Chelsea fan would probably argue that they took their foot off the gas slightly after building such an extensive lead (although you wouldn't know it from the lineups they trotted out in the last few games). Even when looking at the first 32 games, (the point at which Chelsea's lead in the points column was the largest), the gap between City and Chelsea was not that large. In fact, if you apply City's season-long Finish Rates to their Shots on Goal Difference for that period, they would have had a per-game goal difference of 1.21, just behind Chelsea's 1.22 for the same period.

I don't think there's any question that Chelsea had the best 11 last season.  But beyond that starting 11, Chelsea were surprisingly weak. In fact, Chelsea only had 12 players get more than 1000 minutes, fewer than every other team in the league (that includes Burnley, who I thought only had 12 players in their entire squad). They also had 4 outfield players with more than 3000 minutes, including two (Terry and Ivanovic) that played every minute of the season. By comparison, City had no outfield player with 3000 minutes (tops was Silva at 2638). This reliance on so few players can be helpful for a time, as it builds cohesion within that group, but it greatly increases the damage an injury or suspension can do to the team. It also illustrates the relative good luck Chelsea had on the injury front last year, where (Costa aside) there weren't many people overly familiar with the medical team, and I wouldn't bet on it continuing this season.

Compounding this is the fact that Chelsea have strengthened hardly at all during the transfer window, or for that matter in the prior January window. The Schurrle for Cuadrado swap was a bust. Picking up Falcao may be a masterstroke, but I think it's more likely he's the new Torres, and he'll be behind Costa (and perhaps Remy) in any case. Begovic is a solid keeper, but he'll play fewer minutes than Cech last year. Compare that to City, who have picked up Sterling, Delph, and potentially De Bruyne, players who will all have a significant positive impact on the team. You have to wonder if the possibility of sanctions has scared Abramovich into thrift mode, or if Mourinho is just so supremely self-confident he believes he can win with the same team (the phrase "pride goeth before a fall" leaps to mind). Either way, the end result is the team hasn't changed much, meaning Mourinho is going to have to work these overworked players even more.

City by contrast have made useful purchases in the transfer market, unloaded some deadwood, and look to be a stronger team than the one sent out last season. There's also no African Cup of Nations, and of course the last two such seasons have seen great seasons from Yaya and a Premier League title for City to boot. It won't be easy, but I think City are well-positioned to take back the crown and send Mourinho on his wandering way.

Monday, July 13, 2015

United Aren't That Good (And Their Transfers Aren't Helping)

I read David Mooney's piece on anti-City bias with a grain of salt, just because I know that no matter what team you root for, it will always seem like the media is against you. Still, I have to agree that the divergence in opinion towards City's and United's respective transfer dealings thus far makes no sense. Say what you will about the Sterling saga, City identified their needs (an attacking midfielder who is young, pacy, talented, and English) and got their man. Yet the move has been met with reactions ranging from unimpressed to vitriolic. United have been a bit busier in the transfer market, bringing in Memphis Depay, Matteo Darmian, Bastian Schweinsteiger, and Morgan Schneiderlin, while letting go of Van Persie and Nani. This has brought almost universal acclaim, despite the obvious problem of fitting in their six central midfielders (Blind, Carrick, Fellaini, Herrera, and the two new signings) into one midfield. Obviously, there are moves to be made yet, but the transfer window so far and the last season's stats suggest United could struggle next season to duplicate what they accomplished.

Let's start with the obvious reason that has nothing to do with transfers: United will be playing in the Champions League this season, after sitting the competition out last year. Every year, the team that loses European football makes a huge leap in the Premier League. You don't have to look any further than Liverpool in 2012-13, almost challenging for the title thanks to no midweek distractions, just as United themselves surged to 3rd last year. In the subsequent Liverpool season, the addition of the Champions League had the opposite effect, and it was a big factor in their sixth-placed finish last campaign. United will also suffer from playing those additional games, especially since they also can be expected to play more than one Carling Cup game this season (the mighty MK Dons having smashed them 4-0 in the 2nd round last year). Just as I think not having European football will really help Everton this campaign, I think having it will hurt United's chances at maintaining a top 4 spot, let alone challenge for the league.

The second reason is that United's transfer plans seem to be focused in all the wrong places. Let's take a quick look at United's numbers for the past season:

Off Eff Def Eff Possession FR Opp FR
Totals 85.91 107.94 61.26 32.39% 23.74%
Rank 17th 17th 1st 4th 3rd

As you can plainly see, United's strengths were in keeping possession of the ball, finishing their chances, and having David De Gea in goal. Their weaknesses lay in limiting opponents' chances and in a striking inability to create chances given their possession advantage. Yet their two signature signings, Schneiderlin and Schweinsteiger, are both holding central midfielders coming from systems that prioritize possession, duplicating what they already had. Darmian will help defensively certainly, but Antonio Valencia had a quite underrated season as a right-back last year, averaging more interceptions per 90 minutes than Darmian and posting a higher tackle success percentage. Only Memphis Depay is an addition that really helps out in one area, as he is the sort of creative player their squad is crying out for, but they still haven't addressed their biggest position of need: center-back. Even if Otamendi or Ramos comes in and is an instant success, that still leaves Smalling and/or Jones playing major minutes this season, something which as a City fan makes me very happy.

You'll notice that so far I've only mentioned the arrivals. But it's the potential departures that should have United really concerned. David de Gea is the obvious name here. If there's one game that was United's season in a nutshell, it was the 3-0 home win over Liverpool. Controlled possession, conceded more chances than they allowed, but won comfortably.  That was because David de Gea was a god last year, repeatedly saving the skin of his terrible defense. If his long-mooted, saga-of-the-season-if-it-weren't-for-Sterling transfer to Madrid goes through, United will have lost their best player from last term. They have also let Van Persie leave and Chicharito is sure to follow, meaning for now they only have Rooney and the youngster Wilson as recognized strikers. There are rumors of interest in Cavani, but that would likely signal the exit of Di Maria to PSG. And if Di Maria was to leave, not only would they be taking a huge loss on him after just one year, they would lose their top assist and key pass man (per 90 minutes), making their chance creation even worse.

Definitely transfers yet to come can still affect things, as we're nowhere near the close of the window. But people seem to be viewing United's moves based on the premise that United were close to contending last season, when I don't think it is at all clear that they were. United did finish fourth in the table, and even had the fourth best goal difference. But their Shots on Goal Difference was only 6th, and I think that is more indicative of their true talent level. Consider that last year, Ander Herrera and Juan Mata combined for 15 goals...on 19 shots on goal!!!! That's a finish rate of 79%, and given that the league average was 28% last season and neither Herrera nor Mata is a world-class finisher, this is completely unsustainable (for reference, the duo combined for 11 goals on 31 Shots on Goal the season before). Put them at league average Finish Rates and that drops United's goal difference 10 goals, putting them behind Southampton into 5th on Goal Difference. When you factor in the bonus of not playing European football, I think it's clear that United were not necessarily better than Southampton, Spurs, or Liverpool, and in fact were quite lucky to make it to the 4th spot.

I can certainly understand that the determination United has shown in the transfer market has resonance for United fans given David Gill's baffling inactivity in the few windows prior. However, I really can't see how these signings (and potential departures) make United a better team this year, despite the fact they weren't a great team last year. Apart from Depay, the signings they have made so far don't help cover their weaknesses, while looming departures and simple regression to the mean will likely reduce their strengths. The media and United fans may be showering Gill and Van Gaal with praise now, but based on last year's results and this transfer window, I don't think we'll have to listen to it come the end of the season.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Sterling Will Appreciate At City

The Sterling saga has dragged on and on, and will seemingly continue to do so. City are right that the market for Sterling is nowhere near 50 million pounds, and Liverpool are right that City are the club that would overpay the market. That's because City and Sterling are the perfect fit of player and club, the kind that comes around very infrequently. City's reasons for pursuing Sterling are well-known: he's English, talented, young, and pacy, attributes City have sore need of in their team for various reasons. Still, there's far less talk about why Sterling should move to City, with a lot of fans convinced he would be better off at Liverpool (largely remembering the fate of Rodwell and Sinclair, and ignoring the success of Milner and Barry). But I think City really are the better fit for him at this point in his career. No, Liverpool fans, it isn't because Sterling is going to a club full of supposed money-grabbers, but rather that City are the club best-placed to complete his development into a true star.

This might be less obvious to most people, but it's true nonetheless. The major statistical problem Sterling had last season (and according to the papers, one of his problems with the club) was that Rodgers often played him out of position at right back and as a central striker. My feeling is he is at his best as an attacking midfielder, and in fact he has achieved his best ratings from in that position (7.61, compared to 7.12 as a forward and 6.47 as a right wingback). That's precisely where City will play him, whether they line up in their 4-2-2-2 or a 4-2-3-1. Pellegrini may be justifiably criticized for refusing to move players around at times, but there's no denying Sterling will appreciate being given his preferred role.

He'll also have a lot less pressure on him than he did at Liverpool, where he was forced to carry a pretty heavy load. Sterling played over 3000 minutes last year, ranking 30th in the entire league among outfield players, which is something considering his club manager and country manager have at times both publicly stated the need to keep him fresh. At City, no outfield player averaged more than 2700 minutes, and he will benefit from City's depth giving him chances to rest. Cynics will say that City's depth will mean he'll rot on the bench, but I doubt that very highly given his profile and the fact that of the 4 main attacking midfielders City fielded last season, none of them played fewer than 1500 minutes in the Premier League.

However, the pressure at Liverpool didn't come solely from his minutes total, but also Sterling's role as a main focus of Liverpool's attacking play. Borrowing from basketball statistics, I've developed my own version of usage rate, which tracks the number of possessions per game a player uses (the formula is here: {[Shots + Unsuccessful Passes + Unsuccessful Take-Ons + Key Passes]*90}/Minutes). This is a useful measure to see which players are most involved in a team's attack. Of players who played more than 1000 minutes, Sterling had the second-highest usage rate on Liverpool behind Coutinho (and contributed more goals and assists in the possessions used, by the way), showing that a huge chunk of Liverpool's attack went through him. On City, with Silva, Aguero, Bony, and Toure playing alongside him, he'll have a lot more people to share the offensive load. That should help him to become an even more effective attacking talent, using his pace off the ball more and becoming a more complete threat.

Sterling and City would be a great match, so great I'm almost convinced it won't actually happen. City get to tick off the homegrown box with a genuine talent, and Sterling continues his development in an environment with less pressure and surrounded by better teammates than he had at Liverpool. City and Liverpool actually completing this transfer would benefit them both, but in my mind, Sterling has the most to gain by City spending his namesake.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Stones is Rock Solid

Kids these days. That's basically Adam Bate's argument in his recent piece concerning John Stones. Bate looks at Everton's Stones and sees him as Exhibit A in the trend toward a more cerebral and skilled defender, rather than the tough, no-nonsense defender in the mold of John Terry, say. According to Bate, the emphasis on more "attacking" skills for defenders risks making defensive skills unappreciated, and eventually we'll have games where eleven Messis take on eleven Ronaldos. This yearning for the days of hard fouls and concussions that made the Premier League borderline unwatchable has always struck me as odd, but that aside, is Stones really the poster child for the trend of the offense-minded center-back? David Luiz, Thomas Vermaelen, even Vincent Kompany spring more readily to mind. In fact, when you look at the statistics, in addition to being better on the ball, Stones is as solid defensively as his supposed foil in Terry.

There's no doubt that Stones is good with the ball at his feet. Bate has some good quotes from his U-21 coach Gareth Southgate on the subject, and the statistics back it up. Stones has the highest passing percentage of any defender with at least 10 starts (90%, tied along with Sakho and Skrtel), and that's despite having an average pass length of 22 meters. He's also excellent at keeping the ball, with a take-on success percentage of  81% (similar to Yaya Toure's 84%). Those are incredible numbers, and certainly can give the impression that his strength is in attack, not defending. Bate goes further though, writing, "Where one thing is gained, something else is lost," which seems to assume that Stones' offensive skills must come at the expense of his defensive skills. That is a nonsensical argument easily disproven.

The first point Bate makes is that nobody tackles anymore, except for Chelsea, and that's why they are so good defensively. Yet he conveniently ignores the fact that Stones is an excellent tackler. His tackle success rate is 68%, highest of any defender with at least ten appearances. Second on that list? John Terry. Stones also averages more tackles per 90 minutes than either Terry or his partner Cahill. Bate also mentions blocked shots in his piece, noting that Terry and Cahill both ranked in this category despite facing fewer shots than many other defenders. Still, it should be noted that Stones averaged 1.1 blocks per 90 minutes, more than Terry (.79) or Cahill (.87), although Everton did face on average 2 more shots per game. Individually, it's hard to find a statistic that points to Stones being anything but a strong defender (in fact lists him as having no weaknesses).

Still, individual stats only account for so much, and perhaps it is Stones' team record which is damning. Bate's piece primarily focuses on Chelsea as the premier defensive team in the league, and as seen above he uses Chelsea defenders who are supposedly more defensively-minded to provide a contrast with Stones. However, Chelsea were not in fact the best defensive team last year. Sure, they had the best goals against record, but that was helped by two factors: Thibaut Courtois and their offense controlling possession. Thanks to Courtois (and Cech), Chelsea's opponents' were only able to get 23% of their non-penalty shots on target into the net, whereas Tim Howard's nightmare season resulted in 35% for Everton's opponents. When looking at shots on target allowed per 1000 minutes of opponent possession (my preferred measure of defensive prowess since it reduces goalkeeper impact and accounts for style of play differences), Chelsea allowed 81, behind Southampton (71) and Crystal Palace (74) and just ahead of Everton at 83. Chelsea were better defensively than Everton, but it's not nearly the contrast Bate would have you believe, and both teams were among the best in the league defensively.

Stones is by no means a perfect player. Stats can't always quantify the value of good positioning, the impact of the team's formation, and other factors. However, all the available evidence points to Stones being a very good defender, capable of holding his own with anyone in the league, despite the fact he is only 20 years old. Bate states that Stones is "a defender who needs to work on his defending". Well sure, but only in the sense that Kevin de Bruyne or Raheem Sterling are attackers who need to work on their attacking: they are young and don't know everything yet. Stones is on his way to being the best defender in England and if I were Roberto Martinez, I would never let him go.

(All individual data is from, all team data is from collated by myself.)