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.

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Shot Efficiency

28 01 2010

You’ve got to hit the target. It’s a simple truth, and one often repeated during the course of a football game. A shot that’s off-target is a wasted opportunity: all it does is hand possession back to the opposition.

As result, it makes logical sense that a player who can hit the target with relative regularity is a valuable commodity. A shot that is headed for goal forces a save or a block, which can result in follow-up chances or corners if the initial shot doesn’t go in.

With this in mind I decided to see which players stood out from the crowd with regard to shot efficiency. Quite simply I looked at the percentage of shots taken that hit the target, and the percentage that go in. In the interest of simplicity I only looked at players from the current top 3 teams: Man Utd, Chelsea and Arsenal.

The first thing that became apparent was that both John O’Shea and Fran Mérida have an impressive 100% goal rate this season. They have, however, only taken a single shot each over the course of the 09/10 campaign. Consequently I narrowed it down to players who have taken at least 25 shots so far this season.

The resulting list of 15 players contained all the players you might expect to find. These players accounted for 106 of the teams’ combined 139 Premier League goals this season and an impressive 815 attempts on goal.

The standout player of the group was Cesc Fábregas. Love him or hate him he really contributes. As well as being the only player in the league to have hit double digits for both goals and assists (11 and 11), the Arsenal captain has seen a whopping 20.4% of his efforts hit the back of the net.

In terms of total attempts, unsurprisingly, Rooney and Drogba are leading the pack. It follows that they are also leading the league in goals right now. What was surprising was that, despite taking 29 fewer shots than Rooney, Didier Drogba has hit the target on 2 more occasions. This translates in to a difference of over 10 percentage points in their shooting efficiency.

But if that should be the case, how come Rooney has 19 goals to Drogba’s 14 this season? In fact, despite missing the target far more frequently, Rooney actually scores a higher percentage of his shots than Drogba. Even more extreme is Anelka, who has hit the target with an incredible 50% of his 58 shots. But while over half of Rooney’s goal-bound efforts hit the back of the net, barely one in 5 of Anelka’s beat the keeper.

Which makes you wonder how much benefit there is in hitting the target. It would be interesting to know how many of those saved or blocked shots resulted in goals, whether from the rebound falling to an attacking player or a goal from a resulting corner. At the end of the day, Rooney may be more of an all or nothing striker, but at the rate he’s scoring, nobody’s is thinking too much about the missed shots.

Note: Statistics include league games up to 25 Jan 2010