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

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