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.