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.