Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Three Likes Three Games In

It's a new season, and it's a brand new City. This is at once surprising, as give or take a couple players it's been the same team that was so disappointing last season, and unsurprising, as having a top echelon manager is bound to make a difference. The first international break (of too freaking many, let's be honest) gives us a chance to consider the early changes to the team, what has worked, and what needs improvement. In an effort to be a more optimistic person, let's start today with three things I've liked so far from the team, because there is an awful lot to like.


Pep's base 2-3-5 formation has gotten a lot of attention, but I'm going to have to gush some more over its brilliant simplicity. The amazing thing about it is how easily it makes it to move the ball vertically forward. Consider this well-known Mourinho quote about the 4-3-3:
Look, if I have a triangle in midfield – Claude Makelele behind and two others just in front – I will always have an advantage against a pure 4-4-2 where the central midfielders are side by side. That’s because I will always have an extra man. It starts with Makelele, who is between the lines. If nobody comes to him he can see the whole pitch and has time. If he gets closed down it means one of the two other central midfielders is open. If they are closed down and the other team’s wingers come inside to help, it means there is space now for us on the flank, either for our own wingers or for our full-backs. There is nothing a pure 4-4-2 can do to stop things.
In Chelsea's case, the formation worked because Makelele always had two easy forward options. The genius of Pep's system is that EVERY PLAYER in defense or midfield has two easy forward options. The goalkeeper can pass to the two central defenders. The central defenders can pass to Fernandinho or their respective fullback. Fernandinho can pass to Silva or De Bruyne, the left-back can hit Nolito or Silva, and the right-back can hit Sterling or De Bruyne. That leads to passing charts like this, clearly emphasizing the verticality of the formation. It really shouldn't be that surprising since the numeric representing the formation is a partial Fibonacci sequence, and the latter's connection with Pascal's triangle underlines that there are always multiple options the further you go. Indeed, in the first few games, where City have had the most trouble is where the sequence ends in the final third of the pitch.

Game by Game Progress

I've been looking a lot at a stat I call Usage Rate, which shows the percentage of a team's possessions that a given player is responsible for the end result (i.e. a shot, key pass, assist, or turnover). It helps to show how involved each player is in a team's attack, and can be very useful in assessing a change in role (I've posted a brief explanation and a link to 2015-16 data for all players here). With Pep coming in, I wanted to see how the usage rates of the players looked in the first three games of the new season (starters only):

Game 1
Game 2
Game 3
Player Usage Rate
Player Usage Rate
Player Usage Rate
Clichy 14.94%
De Bruyne 15.19%
Silva 21.70%
Nolito 13.99%
Sterling 11.93%
Sterling 16.11%
Aguero 13.12%
Aguero 11.08%
De Bruyne 15.08%
Sterling 12.28%
Otamendi 11.01%
Aguero 12.67%
Silva 11.71%
Navas 10.93%
Nolito 11.46%
De Bruyne 10.66%
Caballero 10.09%
Fernandinho 8.48%
Fernandinho 10.66%
Fernandinho 8.26%
Zabaleta 8.48%
Sagna 9.02%
Silva 8.26%
Clichy 6.60%
Kolarov 7.38%
Zabaleta 7.34%
Otamendi 4.71%
Stones 5.74%
Kolarov 6.42%
Caballero 3.77%
Caballero 2.46%
Stones 3.67%
Stones 2.92%

As you can see, there were some kinks in the first game, as Clichy is not a player you want in a high usage role. The second game looks better, but Caballero's usage rate is way too high for a keeper (this was probably due to the fact that Stoke pressed high a bit more) and Otamendi's similarly high for a CB. But in the West Ham match, we see a much better distribution of possessions. All the attacking players are using more possessions, all the defensive ones are using fewer, which is exactly how it should be in a functioning offense. The team metrics are better too, with turnovers (unsuccessful passes + unsuccessful take-ons) dropping from 106 to 97 to 84, and shots rising (albeit with a slight dip against Stoke) from 16 to 12 to 22. That there is such a clear progression in the data makes me pretty confident of continued improvement, where I was really just hoping performance levels would stay the same under Pellegrini.


One of the biggest differences so far has been the play of Raheem Sterling. This is not to say he played badly last year, as I think his season last year was very underrated. Still, he was never really a good fit for the role Pellegrini tried to shoehorn him into. In my diagnosis of City's problems last year, I wrote the following about Sterling in Pellegrini's 4-2-2-2:
Sterling too doesn't really fit. His best attributes are his intelligent forward runs, pace, and trickery, all of which are neutered in a role that prioritizes pinpoint passing. Due to Pellegrini's influence, his take-ons are down from 3 per 90 last year to 2 this year, and his limited passing (at least compared to Silva and Nasri) results in tons of back passes. His usage rate is way too low for the position, posting just 10.9%, 8th on the team, and both left backs have higher usage rates.
It's been completely different under Pep. Many have noted the fullbacks underlapping rather than overlapping has given Sterling the space to attack his man, which is completely true. Just as important though is that he doesn't have that safety net of the fullback right next to him, so he's incentivized to beat his man himself rather than pass it tamely backwards to keep possession. His take-ons are up to almost 4 a game (in the top 10 in the league for players with at least 90 minutes) and his Usage Rate so far has increased from 10.76% last season to 13.37% this, ranking fourth on the team behind Silva, Nolito, and De Bruyne. Somewhat ironically given the suddenly positive media attention, the possessions he has used have resulted in positive outcomes (shots, key passes, assists) at a lower rate than last year (24% compared to 35%). Still, that is (a) partly to be expected given a larger role in the attack and (b) far less dangerous when the fullback is not bombing on beyond him so much. Given the consistent improvement the team has shown so far under Pep, I expect Sterling will be able to get that rate back to last year's levels and really start to fulfill his potential.

As I said, there's definitely a lot to like about the play so far, without even getting into the positive results. Sitting top of the table, let's take some time to savor what's going right. At least until, you know, I write the other half of this piece.

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