Blackburn – Overachieving?

12 02 2010

Blackburn’s very negative goal difference may be a cause for concern but they are relatively comfortable in 11th place. While the teams around them have mostly single digit goal differences (both sides of zero) Blackburn are on -17. How can we reconcile such obvious defensive difficulties with a respectable point total, and what does it say about their side?

Goal difference may simply be a means of differentiating between teams level on points but it can also be a useful indicator of a teams performance. On a basic level, at the end of the game a positive goal difference is a win while a negative goal difference is a loss. So it follows that the more points a team has, the better the goal difference will be. Of course this isn’t always true, a side that grinds out several 1-0 wins but suffers the occasional 5-0 drubbing will mess with the system slightly, but it makes for a handy guide.

Around the midway point in the season, goal difference can highlight the sides that are strong candidates for moving up or down the table as the season progresses. At Christmas both Everton and West Ham were struggling, but their respective goal differences were considerably better than those of the teams around them. At the time of writing both have improved their position by at least 5 places in the 7 weeks since then. Admittedly Portsmouth would also have been considered candidates for improvement back then, but their well publicised problems off the pitch have undoubtedly played a significant role in their demise this year.

With the table as it stands now, Blackburn are the only real anomaly in this respect. If we were to believe the goal difference, Blackburn would be a bottom 5 side. So why aren’t they?

Defensive difficulty. Blackburn have conceded 2 or more goals in 50% of their games this season. In these games they have a dismal goal difference of -28, topped only by Wigan and Burnley, and these games account for all 11 of their losses so far. In these losses Blackburn have averaged over 3 goals against and under 0.5 goals for, for a goal difference of -29. Evidently in Blackburn when it rains it pours.

On the other hand, they are undefeated in games where they concede 1 or less. Only Chelsea and Man Utd can say the same. But in these games efficiency is the key word. Of the sides averaging at least 2 points per game when they concede 1 or less, Blackburn have easily the worst goals for average at just 1.23. So while they are prone to heavy defeats, Blackburn have a habit of grinding out narrow wins, therefore skewing the goal difference.

But what does this mean for Blackburn? They have been steadily rising up the league since November, the only calendar month where they recorded a positive goal difference. Despite averaging under a goal a game in that period, Blackburn have been performing like a top half side.

At this point in the season it looks as though this knack for narrow wins and heavy defeats is an established pattern that may well continue. Moreover, it can be attributed to an inability to perform away from home. With only one win and 8 goals in 13 games on the road, Blackburn play like a relagation battling side. Their away goal difference of -23 is 3rd worst in the league. On the other hand they are top half side at Ewood Park. They even manage a positive goal difference in front of their own fans.

All things considered, mid-table looks to be a fair position for Blackburn. Like Villa and Birmingham, they manage to make it count when they do score, keeping the points coming faster than the goals. While the fans might appreciate the side seeing out victories in a little more comfort, having won by more than a goal just once since late November, they won’t have to worry about a relegation battle at least.

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Man City – A Work in Progress

10 02 2010

A confident 2-0 win over Bolton on Tuesday saw City move up to fifth in the table, level on points with Liverpool but with a game in hand. New boy Adam Johnson earned himself a good deal of praise for his performance, proving himself a solid addition to an already formidable attack. While undoubtedly a good signing, it is questionable whether a side that ranks 4th in the league for goals scored needs to focus on bolstering their expensively assembled attack.

Granted they kept a clean sheet against Bolton, but that proves little. Bolton are struggling right now and City have played consistently well at home this season, so the result was hardly unexpected. As Manchester United and Chelsea recently proved against Arsenal, if a team wants to compete at the highest level in this league they can’t afford to be one dimensional. Both times Arsenal failed to come up with an adequate plan B when things were going wrong.

City’s problem so far has been playing away from home. Although they have yet to lose at home in the league this season, they have managed to win on the road just 3 times in 12 attempts. Clearly, when things are going in their favour, City are a threat to any side, but they still need to improve to push Liverpool out of the top 4.

With 3 of their next 4 opponents residing in the top 6, City will need to iron out the creases in their game if they are to still be a serious threat to the top 4. Looking at the Bolton game, there are two distinct trends that oppositions should be aware of, and which City need to recognise if they are to avoid these higher quality sides exposing their weaknesses.

First is the threat from the wings. It is crucial that opposition full backs are alert defensively since city like to make good use of their wide players. Most notably, opposing left backs need to be quick and prepared for City to come at them. Johnson caused no end of trouble down the right wing, twice taking on his defender and winning. Collectively Manchester City won 6 such “take on” challenges according to Guardian Chalkboards, 5  of which were on the right wing. They also won over half of their free kicks there.

City players taking on the defender

Secondly, City are weak in the air. Not only did a blue shirt fail to get on the end of every single cross to go into the Bolton penalty area, but, perhaps more worryingly, they struggled aerially in defence too. City lost 17 challenges in the air, compared to only 11 that they won. Kolo Touré won just 33% of his aerial challenges, while Vieira lost all 4 of his.

City aerial challenges won and lost

Not one City player was ever beaten one-on-one on the ground in his own half and as a team they lost only 4 tackles on the ground in the entire game, but as Fellaini proved a few weeks ago, this City side have a serious weakness to high balls. Against Bolton it proved to be inconsequential, but against better sides it could be costly. With neither of their deep midfielders winning the ball once in the air last night, it raises questions over whether this City side is complete enough to really be considered as one of the top teams in the Premier League.

The next few games should prove this, one way or the other, but if oppositions can stifle City on the wings and deny them the chances they got at Bolton as well as exploiting aerial weaknesses in the side we will get to see what Manchester City are really made of. If Mancini’s side are made to look average in the upcoming fixtures then he will know he has his work cut out to meet expectations. On the other hand, if City can dig deep, pull out some good team performances and show they have a legitimate plan B when teams make life difficult then this side could be destined for great things.





Liverpool v Everton

7 02 2010

Both sides went into the Merseyside derby on a good run of form. Despite slow starts to their respective seasons, it had been some time since either side had suffered defeat in the league. In fact, the last time Everton had lost in the Premier League prior to Saturday’s game was back in November, when they lost 2-0 to Liverpool.

As if the earlier loss wasn’t pressure enough, the history of the fixture didn’t bode well for Everton who had failed to come away from Anfield with a win in their previous 10 attempts. Not that Liverpool went into the game without any pressure, still residing outside of top 4 and having failed to win at Anfield in either of the sides’ two encounters there last season.

The game is always likely to be an exciting one when these two clubs meet. In fact, in 7 of the last 10 seasons there has been at least one red card shown in a Merseyside derby. In 05/06 there was a total of 4 red cards shown, 2 in both matches.

This game proved to be no different, with Kyrgiakos heading for the tunnel just past the half hour mark, although nobody could have complained if Pienaar had been shown a red card for a dangerous tackle shortly before that. Pienaar did eventually head off for an early bath for a second yellow card, although it was so deep in injury time that he would have barely made it to the changing room before the final whistle sounded.

In the last decade, a red card in a Merseyside derby has never resulted in a draw. As such, Everton must have been encouraged to see Kyrgiakos go so early on. Unfortunately for the visitors they also lost Fellaini to injury as a result of that two-footed tackle. The holding midfielder, who believes he is playing the best football of his career right now, was 100% for both tackles and passes while he was on the pitch, although the Toffees had a capable replacement on the bench in Arteta.

In the end, the red card may have been a blessing in disguise for Liverpool. The loss of Kyrgiakos forced them to defend in numbers, making it extremely difficult for Everton to score. In fact, the visitors managed only 4 shots from then on.

While Everton may have been encouraged by the advantage of having an extra player, they failed to make it count. They seemed unable to create chances with Liverpool putting 10 men behind the ball. Meanwhile, at the other end, Liverpool were using set pieces to their advantage. Although they found their chances much more restricted after the sending-off, 7 attempts in the opening 35 minutes compared to just 4 after, Liverpool made theirs count.

Despite taking the shots early on (incidentally Liverpool took more shots prior to the sending off than Everton managed all game), Liverpool were struggling to make real chances. The shots taken from inside the area all came from set-pieces and none were on target. The one shot that was technically from open play was from distance after Fellaini only partially cleared a corner and was easily blocked by Baines. The only other Liverpool shot to come from open play during the match came just before the goal and was also blocked.

If Liverpool were to score it was going to come from a set piece, especially after the red card. In the end it was clever play from Kuyt, getting himself between the keeper and his defender and using his strength to hold his position, coupled with a superb corner from Gerrard that broke the deadlock. Neutrals would have done well to have stopped watching then.

From that point on, Liverpool put all their energy into defending their lead. Their only shot after Kuyt’s header put them in front was from a direct free kick. To give credit where credit’s due, Liverpool saw out their win well. It may not have been exciting to watch but they restricted Everton to just one shot as they chased an equaliser. That this shot came from outside the penalty area and from well to the left of goal shows the desperate measures Everton were forced to turn to in pursuit of a point.

In the end this game won’t be remembered for high quality football. The two red cards also seem fairly pedestrian given this fixture’s history of sendings off, where red cards are commonplace and two in the same game are not unheard of. In fact, when Everton last won at Anfield no less than 3 players saw red. Rather this game should be remembered as an aerial battle.

That’s to say that this game was won and lost in air. Both sides took 8 corners apiece, and while Liverpool scored from one, Everton didn’t even manage a shot from theirs. Ordinarily a threat from corners, Cahill was fairly absent. In particular it is Cahill who may feel he lost this aerial battle. Just before the break he had perhaps the best chance of the game with an unmarked header and most of the goal to aim at. Admittedly he had little time to react as the ball came his way, but he will no doubt be disappointed to have headed over from such close range. Given the way the chances went after that, it could have made a big difference to the game.

But if they are looking at what could have been, Everton fans must surely wonder how they might have fared had Fellaini not been stretchered off so early on. A formidable aerial presence both going forward and in defence, he was perhaps the single player most capable of making a difference in this match. Fans can only hope that his scan confirms the initial diagnosis that nothing was broken in that challenge.





The Dangers of Playing in Europe

3 02 2010

February brings with it the return of European competition. England boasts an impressive 6 teams still involved in either the Champions League or the Europa League, the same number as Germany and just one less the Spain. For the teams in question (Arsenal, Chelsea, Man Utd, Everton, Fulham and Liverpool) this can be both a blessing and a curse.

For the three involved in the Champions League, to be around in the final 16 and pushing for an appearance in the final is fairly routine. They have the squad depth to cope with the additional games in the schedule and still be competitive. In fact all three have made it to the final at least once in the last 4 years. Even so, only United have managed to combine domestic and European success in recent years, and when Arsenal finished as runners-up in 2006 it coincided with the first time in 10 years that they finished outside the top 3 in the league. And they fell short of Liverpool in third place by some way.

Nonetheless, even with the injuries they have, fans of the top three can look forward to the European fixtures, rather than worry about the effect it may be having on their team. The same cannot be said of the three teams in the Europa League knockout stages.

All three sides have had their form questioned at some point this year and all can point to big names on the injury list in response. The question is, what will the midweek games and trips abroad do for the teams? When teams don’t have the depth to rotate their players the core members of the squad end up seeing significant increases in minutes played, which can have negative effects on performances both domestically and in Europe. Worse still is the greater potential for fresh injuries.

David Moyes admits that upcoming games in Europe can impact upon his team selection, and played a part in his handling of Arteta’s recovery after a lengthy stint on the sidelines. So when squads are already stretched, fans have to weigh the thrill of European competition with the potential costs. If a club wants to bring in the money and the players to really compete in Europe, they first need to ensure they qualify through the league on a regular basis.

But it’s not all bad.

European games aren’t just exciting for the fans. They motivate the players too. Sometimes a side that has fallen into a post-Christmas slump can find that the renewed focus on Europe is just what they need. In the middle of a long season it suddenly gives players something concrete to aim for, it requires them to step up their game and it gets the most out of players because these are the games they look forward to.

The difference is, while Fulham are rock bottom of the form table right now and, in that respect at least, have nothing to lose from playing in Europe, both Everton and Liverpool have managed to put together a decent string of results. They can only hope that the additional games don’t jeopardise all their recent good work. In particular Everton, who have managed to overcome a dreadful start to the season to put themselves in with an outside chance of taking a European spot for next year, have a frightful fixture list for February. In 23 days they play 4 of the current top 5 sides, and Sporting twice.

Such is the paradox of European competition. Fringe European sides, such as Everton and Fulham, strive to qualify in the hope of attracting higher calibre players. Yet, the following season’s additional fixtures prove too much for all but the deepest of squads and they fail to adequately build upon it. Everton have so far done well in establishing themselves as regular contenders for Europe and gradually strengthening their squad at minimal expense, but if they fail to qualify again this year, and they can’t hang to players like Fellaini and Pienaar, who is stalling on signing a new contract,  for another year they could find themselves back where they started.





Wayne Rooney

2 02 2010

The fact that so much of the attention after the Arsenal game was on Nani’s performance, in many ways, is a reflection on Rooney’s performances this season. Rooney was undeniably great in that game, but that’s not news anymore. Time and time again Rooney provides top drawer performances, so much so that it seems at times that we have become desensitized to his brilliance.

But with the World Cup looming, people have started to look at Rooney’s form with the big picture in mind. There’s the obvious question of whether Rooney can maintain his current level of play, which he will almost certainly have to if England are to have any chance of challenging for football’s biggest prize, but some have even been led to wonder if United’s dependance on Rooney, who has filled the void left by Cristiano Ronaldo’s departure admirably, will mean he gets overplayed, at the national side’s expense. In fact, with 34 starts in 35 games in all competition since August, including 23 of 23 in the Premier League, Rooney could be looking at a long and tiring season.

For now it remains to be seen how many minutes Rooney will log before the domestic season draws to a close, although England fans must surely be hoping for Owen to return swiftly to form if only to spare Rooney’s legs. His current level of form, on the other hand, is easier to examine. The most obvious feature when looking at his stats this year is his consistency. Fantastic news for England fans, Wayne Rooney has been performing at a ridiculously high level all year. How else could he have surpassed the total set by last season’s leading scorer by the end of January?

The chart below shows Rooney’s per game averages in shots, shots on target and goals for each month of the season so far. It shows us three things worth considering.

  1. Rooney has netted in every single calendar month so far. In fact the longest he has gone without a goal is three games across September and October. By contrast he had scored in 4 consecutive games prior to that, his longest such sequence of the season. Although he is currently on a 3-game run worth 6 goals.
  2. There are no worrying anomalies on the graph. Although there is a slight dip in production in October, it is not significant, and the exceptionally high standard set in August simply exaggerates it. Even during a relatively ‘off’ spell, Rooney’s production was more than respectable.
  3. He is excellent at taking the chances that come his way. A sudden drop in shots attempted in November, a full 2 per game less than in October, coincided with a modest upturn in shots on target and a marked increase in goals. In other words, regardless of what is going on around him, Rooney is superb at making sure he keeps the goals coming.

A chart showing Rooney's shots, shots on target and goal per game averages, broken down by month.

So while the shots attempted tend to fluctuate wildly, the shots on target and goals don’t necessarily follow, resulting in a fairly consistent output. But perhaps the best news for United fans, and potentially England fans to, is that in the last couple of months the stats are all trending upwards. So at nearly 7 shots a game, more than 2 hitting the target and a sublime 1.5 goals over January and with trends pointing upwards we have to wonder what Rooney’s limit is and if he might not just maintain this form, but exceed it in the coming months.

If he can continue to produce like this for the rest of the season, not only will he give England fans some real hope come summertime, but he will be on pace to pass the 30 goal target set by his manager. With 20 goals in 23 games, Rooney is currently on track to net 33 goals in the league this year. Should he achieve it, it would be the highest Premier League tally since 1995, leaving him just a goal shy of the all-time Premier League league record of 34 goals set by Andrew Cole in the 93/94 season and matched by Alan Shearer the next year.

Manchester United have won the Premier League in each of the three seasons when one of their players topped the scoring chart.





Man U v Arsenal

31 01 2010

Although perhaps not the most popular player at the club, Nani played a central role in United’s victory over Arsenal. Constantly at the heart of attacking moves, Nani gave Gael Clichy trouble throughout. His inclusion in the starting eleven prompted a fair number of questions, but not only did Nani give his doubters something to think about, he showed Ferguson saw something most of us didn’t.

On the one hand you could argue that one good game on it’s own doesn’t have much value. Which, to be fair, is true. By that same argument it could be said the Ferguson got a little lucky that his decision to start Valencia on the bench paid off. But that doesn’t take into account how Manchester United approached the game.

According to ESPN’s Soccernet, United played 49% of their attacking football down the right flank. In addition, a look at the average position of the United players throughout the match show that there was continuous and intentional overloading of that side of the pitch. The image below is a screenshot of Soccernet’s Average Player Position tool, which for some reason flips the image, showing Nani and Rafael working on the left. I could have flipped it back manually, but then the numbers would have been backwards.

You can see Nani (17) occupying a very attacking position, high up on the right side of the pitch, leaving space for Fletcher (24) to slide over, knowing he was well covered by Carrick and Scholes in the centre. In addition you can see Rafael (21) positioning himself as more of a midfielder than a defencder, occupying a space on the right roughly in line with Carrick. Between the three of them they leave the Arsenal defence either outnumbered or dragged out of position.

Nani, Fletcher and Rafael causing trouble for Arsenal on the right wing. Unfortunately the diagram doesn't know left from right...

By contrast, you can see no such arrangement on the left. There is no obvious left winger according to the diagram, with Park (13) staying relatively central and just over the halfway line and Rooney (10) only marginally left of centre. This leaves Evra (3) as the widest player on the left flank, ready to overlap should the situation warrant it, but the focus of the United attack is clearly on the right.

Evidently it worked, and impressively at that. They managed to embarrass this Arsenal side and cause Clichy no end of trouble. Nani may have played wonderfully today, but it was in a system designed to allow him to shine. Taking nothing away from his performance, and of course Rooney’s though that seems to go without saying at the moment, Ferguson deserves a good deal of credit for the way he sent out his team tonight.





Shot Efficiency – Part 2

29 01 2010

After my earlier blog on shot efficiency I decided to expand my focus and look at the numbers for all players. Below is a brief summary of those who stood out from the crowd when I looked at shots attempted, shots on target and goals scored. In the interest of consistency, and the fact that I started on this a couple of days ago, the games in midweek have not been included in these figures.

The Good

Rooney and Drogba

As mentioned in the initial post, they just make trouble for opposition keepers. The only two players to have taken over 100 shots this year, they are well ahead of Hugo Rodallega in third place who has attempted a meagre 85 shots so far. A combination of ability to create chances as well as an impressive supporting cast means these two terrorise defences on a regular basis.

Rodallega deserves a special mention here, because he actually manages to push Rooney out of the top 2 for shots on target per game. Drogba gets an impressive average of 2.4 shots on target per game, while Rodallega (2.0)and Rooney (1.9) take second and third place.

Jermaine Defoe

Despite averaging 1.7 shots per game less than Drogba (and, incidentally a full 2 fewer than Rooney), the pair are tied for second place, along with Darren Bent, for second place in goals scored this year. He’s making keepers work hard too, with 1.8 shots on target per game.

Sunderland

Or rather, Sunderland’s strikers. Darren Bent and Kenwyne Jones both rank in the top 5 for goal efficiency among players taking at least 20 shots this season. In other words they are both scoring with over 20% of their attempts. Sunderland fans keep count, for every 5 shots they take between them, odds are one of them will go in.

Also worth a mention are Agbonlahor and Anelka who, as well as being in the top 10 scorers list, have managed to hit the target with 50% of their efforts. Not bad with that volume of shots.

The Bad

Unfortunately, these statistics also help to name and shame a few players who might not be helping their team as much as they would like.

Grétar Steinson

He’s hardly the worst offender, but he makes the list for being the only player in the league to register 10 or more shots and to have failed on every occasion to hit the target. Bolton fans can take heart from the fact that he hasn’t wasted possession on too many occasions, having only taken 11 shots so far.

Steve Sidwell

He narrowly avoided joined Steinson in the other category, but despite averaging well over a shot a game he has yet to manage a second goal-bound effort. If he’s not hitting the target, let alone actually troubling the keeper, then someone really needs to tell him to stop shooting and look for the pass a little more.

Robinho

His Premier League season may be over already, but he hasn’t left for Brazil yet and so he’s still fair game. The player who broke the British transfer fee record (and his fee is still the highest paid by a British club) did not have the best of seasons. He wins the honour of most shots per game (2.3) among players without a goal in at least 1 Premier League start. No the cup doesn’t count – these stats are Premier League only. Remarkably, he hit the target with 43.5% of his shots, but unfortunately ‘nearly-goals’ don’t count for anything.

Lucas

The most shots (29) without a goal. It’s perhaps not as wasteful as Robinho when you consider he has made 22 appearances for Liverpool this season, meaning he takes a full shot less per game, but nor is it something to be proud of.

Tom Huddlestone

Perhaps the worst offender in the list, Huddlestone at least saves some face by being the only one to have actually scored. His crime, not unlike Sidwell’s, is being guilty of shooting too often. No-one minds as long as a few go in, but at the rate he shoots he needs to be doing better. In fact, of the 18 players in the league averaging over 3 shots per game, Huddlestone’s shot efficiency is by far the worst. In 61 shots he has hit the target on only 9 occasions and scored just once. That’s rounghly one shot on target for every two games he plays and, get this, a goal efficiency (percentage of total shots that go in) of just 1.6%. As the second most prolific shooter (if not scorer) on his team, that’s just not good enough.

The Rest

Stephen Jordan

He has started all 21 games so far for Burnley and has yet to take a single shot.

Robin van Persie

He should really have made the Good list, but his injury has got in the way of a good start to the season. His per game stats show how good his season could have been; he ranks in the top 5 for shots, shots on target and goals (4.6, 1.7 and 0.6 respectively).

EDIT: I checked, Stephen Jordan started again on Tuesday. He still hasn’t taken a shot.