Norwich City v Liverpool - Barclays Premier League

Liverpool Football Club has worked diligently all season toward their first league title since 1990. Now, at the end of April with the team on 80 points, five ahead of Chelsea, it is realistically within their grasp. Should they win the prize that many couldn’t over the past two and a half decades, they will have earned every last inch of the trophy.

Even so, Liverpool’s triumph will have been aided heavily by some fairly unsustainable numbers, numbers which should spur Brendan Rodgers to action in the club’s off-season.

On the surface, Liverpool’s dominance is something a statistical outlier (“That’s cuz those numbers don’t explain passion and romance! etc. etc.”).

Why? Well their shots ratio, which has held steady most of the season, is ranked 5th in the Premier League (for an explanation of all these concepts, read this piece).

Meanwhile Liverpool’s PDO (sh% plus sv%, a measure of good luck when well above the median of 1000 and bad when well below) is high but not screamingly high at 109.47 (thanks Ben).

At first glance, it’s difficult to see where Brendan Rodgers is getting his secret sauce. Taken together, based on how well TSR correlates with points (and how quickly PDO regresses to the mean), these numbers shouldn’t really put Liverpool top of the table on 80 points with three games to go. This is a low probability event.

I’ve posited before that Game States might hold some of the answer. LFC spend a lot of time winning, which means a lot of time at at least a +1 game state. What does that mean? Well teams at +1 tend to take fewer (but generally more accurate) shots and concede more, which would in theory lower their overall TSR. Yet Man City have spent even more time winning than LFC and their TSR is sky high, commensurate with a first or near first finish.

Maybe that’s because City build up leads, which tends to diminish the GS effect (at +2, things start to revert back to normal). Or maybe City’s TSR is skewed by a small number of games in which they wildly outshot inferior opposition.

Maybe though something else is going on, and this is where we arrive at this pair of tweets from James Grayson which I nearly missed yesterday, but that carry a difficult truth for Liverpool FC.

Shots on target percentage is exactly what it says it is—the percentage of total shots which are on target, for and against. You can measure this percentage against your average opposition SoT%, and come up with a differential. Liverpool’s is evidently quite high.

Why does this matter? Well as Grayson worked out last year, SoT% is roughly split between luck and skill. As Grayson notes in the second tweet, In Liverpool’s case it would explain why a team with a mediocre TSR and a not-that-high PDO is rocking it in first place.

The temptation in Liverpool’s case would be to look at LFC’s very high SoTF% and their very low SoTA% and conclude, “It must be something Brendan’s doing on the training pitch.” This was my line of thinking yesterday when I speculated on why LFC’s differential is so high.

Yet this would only make sense if SoT% for and against was consistent at the team level year over year. So then, here’s the bad news, at least as far as next season is concerned:

In other words, their SoT%s are going to regress. And if LFC post a similar TSR and PDO next season but with a much lower SoTF% and SoTA% differential, they likely won’t finish near or at first place.

Does this mean Liverpool aren’t worthy of their Premier League trophy, should they win it? Of course not. You win it on points, not on abstract probabilities.

What it does mean is that the team should consider seriously strengthening their squad ahead of next season.

Regression is never a popular subject in sports, let alone football. No one wants to believe their team is winning on the back of random variation. We want everything on the pitch to be explainable, even if we know, like all football-loving folk, that luck plays a big role from game to game, hence the mantra about championship teams winning matches “they should have lost.”

Liverpool will deserve their PL trophy, should they win it. But they shouldn’t fall prey to complacency. Look what it did to Moyes’ United.

Borussia Dormund's coach Klopp stands on pitch prior to German soccer cup semi-final match against VFL Wolfsburg in Dortmund

And so, the future: who to replace David Moyes?

Well, we know who in the interim: Ryan Giggs, though his tenure will likely be to ensure some embers of goodwill remain between club and supporters over a lost season whose effects will only be felt next season with United out of Europe.

As for the long-term pick, this is one moment where United being United will help a lot. If it were any other club, the pool of available managers would arguably be much smaler.

Manchester United, after all, are a club that leaked details on the sacked managers not only to the press but the players, before giving Moyes himself official word on the matter. United are a club some believe deliberately let Moyes parade himself in the dugout for months until last Sunday’s defeat to Everton, which triggered a performance club allowing a smaller payout. United are a club that made Wayne Rooney the highest paid player on the squad to an age well beyond sense, which failed to achieve its transfer targets last summer, a club without European football, and in need of an overhaul that one transfer window may not be enough to fix. This does not seem an enticing option at the moment.

The right people will apply, no doubt. But Man United will need to be careful in offering certain assurances—say, a better press strategy, less leverage for underperforming and overrated players—without offering too much. They might also take this opportunity to seek a director of football, but one that isn’t there simply because they know all the right agents.

What United should not do is let themselves get sucked into being guided in their search by the wrong question, namely: Who is the Next Ferguson?

There isn’t one. The club must do the leg work to ensure they will be successful for years to come without him.

Manchester United v Swansea City - FA Cup Third Round

The news, via the Telegraph‘s Mark Ogden, in case you missed it:

David Moyes is facing the sack as Manchester United manager with the club’s owners, the Glazer family, preparing to call time on the Scot’s disastrous tenure at Old Trafford.

Just 11 months after being handed a six-year contract as Sir Alex Ferguson’s hand-picked successor at United, Moyes is understood to have lost the backing of the Glazers and senior executives at the club, with Sunday’s 2-0 defeat at Everton proving the final straw.

Apparently Ryan Giggs is set to takeover in his stead, though this is all unconfirmed.

There were obviously many issues at play with Moyes’ relatively brief tenure as Man United manager, including a record eleven defeats and the almost certain loss of Champions League football. Certainly the 1-0 home loss to Everton at Old Trafford last December was the first sign of a major break from the Alex Ferguson era. Rumours had been circulating as early as a few weeks ago that Moyes would be sacked in June. Today’s news will force United’s hand on the issue.

Even so, Moyes’ coming sacking should not gloss over weaknesses in a squad, which was arguably in need of serious overhaul going as far back as the departure of Cristiano Ronaldo to Real Madrid in 2009. There is an argument to be made that any manager, no matter how talented, would have struggled to replicate Ferguson’s feat in winning the 2012-13 Premier League trophy with the same team.

Yet—surprise!—it’s also possible that Moyes was also not the right manager at the right time, inept, aloof, forcing European Cup winners to watch videos of Everton players in order how to relearn their football (if Red Issue Forum is to be believed). Man United fans were more than willing to allow for a poor start, with a few more stumbles than the season previous perhaps, but they needed some plausible sign the club was on the verge of a positive change. Those signs never came, and the press have long since abandoned him.

Yes, both views are equally plausible, and what’s worse for aggrieved United supporters, they may go hand in hand. The irony may be that both are side effects of the brilliance of Alex Ferguson’s 26 years in charge of the club.

On the one hand, Ferguson’s incredible ability to motivate may have papered over cracks in the side (remember—United won the league last season in a year Anderson Silva was required to make 9 league appearances) and disinclined the club’s higher ups from taking a hard look at major flaws in the team, flaws that were not only expensive to fix but carried with them huge risks as well. And why would they look at them? That was always the manager’s job, and he was gone.

On the other, the god-like anointing of Moyes by Fergie may have stifled some dissenting voices who may have wanted a certain, then available Portuguese firebrand to takeover instead. The larger than life influence of Ferguson on the club may have blinded the board to a succession that was more based on hope than experience.

In either case, the issue here involves the Ferguson Model itself—clubs forever waiting for a genius manager to arrive and make everything better, only to sack them when they fail. From what I’ve heard, the club isn’t going to make the same mistakes post Moyes and are working to ensure a more long-term approach to succession planning in order to help support whichever manager comes in next. This strategy will go hand in hand with an ambitious summer transfer plan which will likely dispel rumours that the Glazers’ are more interested in debt service than improving the squad. The post-Ferguson era may only now be beginning, a year too late.

The question here is what is United going to be about in the next three seasons? The next five? Ten? This summer will almost certainly be more vital to deciding the future of Manchester United Football Club than most, if any, in its history.

Everton v Manchester United - Barclays Premier League

Devang Desai and James Bigg sit down to discuss the big news of the day. David Moyes’ short time as Manchester United boss is reportedly coming to a close. Who is to blame, how bad can it get and what will the future will hold are questions we cover. Enjoy!

You can download the podcast here and subscribe on iTunes here. You can also find the RSS Feed here.

Chelsea v Paris Saint-Germain - UEFA Champions League Quarter Final Second Leg

Ever since Chelsea were pitted against Atlético Madrid in the Champions League semi-final draw, coverage of both clubs has tended to focus on one man. Little wonder. The story of Thibaut Courtois, owned by Chelsea but enjoying a phenomenal season on loan at Atlético, would have been compelling enough even without the contractual clause which threatened to stop him from taking part.

The terms of the player’s loan agreement state that his parent club must be financially compensated – reportedly to the tune of £2.5m – every time that he appears against them in a competitive match. Atlético’s president, Enrique Cerezo, initially suggested that Courtois simply would not be able to play, saying: “it’s a number we cannot afford”.

But then Uefa intervened, ruling that the clause was unenforceable. The governing body “strictly forbids any club to exert, or attempt to exert, any influence whatsoever over the players that another club may (or may not) field in a match”.

Either way, it is telling that Chelsea would place such a high value on Courtois’s presence in the first place. They rate the 21-year-old very highly indeed. Increasingly, so does the rest of the world.

Courtois has been with Atlético now for three seasons, and his performances only continue to improve. He has kept 19 clean sheets in 32 La Liga games this season, plus a further four in the Champions League. His efforts in the latter competition have often been eye-catching, from the stunning reflex stop he made to deny Milan’s Andrea Poli in the last-16 to his second-leg shut-out of Lionel Messi et al during Atlético’s quarter-final win over Barcelona.

There are those who would already name Courtois as the best goalkeeper in the world. The former Atlético striker Radamel Falcao did so last November, while Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink – who played for both the Spanish club and Chelsea during his career – recently claimed that only Bayern Munich’s Manuel Neuer could compare.

The Dutchman was prepared to rank Courtois above the man who will start in goal for Chelsea on Tuesday night. Petr Cech was once considered to be the best in the world himself, but lately seems to have slipped out of the conversation. He knows very well that he is likely to face a battle to keep his job when Courtois’s loan deal expires in the summer.

Impatience for change is building, as it tends to do where young talent is involved. Cech’s qualities were called into question after he made costly mistakes on two of Paris Saint-Germain’s three goals during the first-leg of Chelsea’s own Champions League quarter-final last month. The next day’s edition of the Daily Star newspaper carried the unequivocal headline: “TIME FOR KEEPER TO CECH OUT!”

It was a preposterous demand – and one that came to look even more so after Cech’s clean sheet had helped Chelsea to overturn the result in the second leg. The goalkeeper has made mistakes this season, not least those in Paris, but for the most part he has enjoyed a very solid campaign. In fact, from a statistical standpoint, he’s been outstanding.

Cech has kept 16 clean Premier League sheets so far in 2013-14, three more than any goalkeeper in the division, and is conceding at a rate of just 0.71 goals per game. Nor is this simply a case of him benefitting from the quality of Chelsea’s defence. According to NBC’s stats, Cech’s save percentage for the season stands at 76.7%. Only Vito Mannone, on 77.9%, has done better.

Such achievements are hardly a flash in the pan. Cech had the Premier League’s best save percentage last season, too, when he also made more stops than any other goalkeeper among England’s top four teams. He has kept a club record 219 clean sheets so far in his 10 years at Chelsea, and has shown little sign of slowing down.

But Cech knows better than most that he cannot afford to rest on his laurels. After all, he was a young upstart himself once, arriving at Chelsea as a fresh-faced 22-year-old in the summer of 2004 – after a short loan spell at Rennes – and immediately snatching the starting goalkeeper’s job away from Carlo Cudicini.

During an interview with Sport magazine last summer, Cech recalled the mood of supporters at his Premier League debut – a home game against Manchester United. “I remember coming out for the warm-up, and you see there is a huge reception for Carlo,” said Cech. “Everyone is singing his name, and then the line-ups come out and I think the supporters were like: ‘Who is that guy?’ I knew I had to really deliver if I really wanted to keep my place.”

That he did, playing his part in a 1-0 victory over United and never relinquishing his spot thereafter. Cudicini, previously considered to be one of the better goalkeepers in the Premier League, would not be a full-time starter again until he joined LA Galaxy in Major League Soccer almost a decade later.

Cech has no intention of imitating the Italian’s career path. At 31 years old, he knows that he still has plenty of good years left in him, and does not want to waste them sitting on a bench. Indeed, one of players he looked up to most of all during those early years in English football was Nigel Martyn, a man that Cech admired precisely because of the way he kept performing to a high level even as he closed in on his 40th birthday.

Long before Martyn, though, Cech’s first true goalkeeping idol was Edwin van der Sar. “I remember when Ajax started playing with [him] basically as a libero,” said Cech during his interview with Sport. “Everyone was like: ‘Wow, they are playing like this with their goalkeeper!’

“But then you realise that this was the way forward – a goalkeeper shouldn’t just be in the goal to catch the ball when it comes to him. He is an extra player, he can see things from the back, he can pass the ball. Players don’t just kick the ball for the sake of it, so why should a goalkeeper? You always want to find the solution that enables you to retain the ball, and you always need to know how to control the space behind the defenders.”

It is a style that Cech has sought to emulate in his career, advancing high up the pitch when his teams are in possession. It is also one area in which he might claim an edge over Courtois. In a piece for the Guardian earlier this month, Sid Lowe noted that Barcelona, linked with a bid for the Belgian, had distanced themselves from such a move by raising concerns about his ability to distribute the ball with his feet.

Then again, there is always a fair bit of gamesmanship where potential transfers are concerned. And a Barcelona approach for Courtois would surely be rejected in any case. If Chelsea were to even consider allowing the player to leave, it would likely only be in a deal with Atlético, and presumably one that saw Diego Costa move in the opposite direction. Even that might not be sufficient.

Chelsea, though, are going to have to face up to some difficult decisions this summer. Courtois has already expressed impatience at his situation, suggesting that he would like to know where his long-term future lies. With just two years left on his contract at Chelsea, he might soon be in a position to start making ultimatums.

But Cech has an opportunity over the next fortnight to prove just how much he has left to offer. A clear-eyed look at his performances this season suggests that it might be more than he often gets credit for.

Norwich City v Liverpool - Barclays Premier League

1. The Chelsea Sunderland match reminded us how football works

Chelsea lost at home at Stamford Bridge for the first time in 78 matches to Gus Poyet’s Sunderland. Sunderland. SUNDERLAND. The same Sunderland which arrived in West London on Easter Sunday at the foot of the Premier League table with an LLLDLLLLLD record and only a statistical hope of survival (though another win along with a Norwich cock up puts them in safety, so what do I know?).

The key moment came in the 81st minute of play with the score at 1-1, when this happened. Cesar Azpilicueta was adjudged by the linesman to have fouled American Jozy Altidore, and the penalty was given. Fabio Borini put it away, effectively etching ‘Liver’ on the Premier League trophy with a bit of space left after, just in case. Black Cats resurrexit!

The GIF reveals a textbook case of incidental contact (or does it?), but in real time from the side lines, who knows what the linesman saw? Perhaps the point is that Chelsea should have not have even countenanced being drawn 1-1 against Sunderland at that point at all (all praise Connor Wickham), or that Chelsea should have won those other games they lost all year.

Yet even here things break down, because the teams are packed so tightly at the top of the Premier League right now that crap luck affects everyone. What if the newly subbed on Ricky van Wolfswinkel somehow slipped on Glen Johnson’s boot at home against Liverpool in Norwich’s 2-3 acquiescence, and the linesman called it wrong?

Maybe stuff like the Altidore pen just happens, and sometimes it’s devastating, but there’s nothing that can be done because the Laws of the Game, the Laws of Physics, and the Speed and Reliability of Human Cognition will never perfectly align?

2. Jose Mourinho’s post match remarks

Well worth your time.

3. Liverpool’s defensive soft spots

Away days are tough even for Campiones Nearly Elect like Liverpool (and new Champions League entrants for the 2014-15 season), but we got a brief glimpse against Norwich why Brendan Rodger’s team is top of the Premier League table but fifth in Shots Ratios, particularly when not at a tied game state.

When Liverpool go up, they’re content to concede shots, possibly because they like to play on the break (as I wrote the other day).

Liverpool carved out their own chances but conceded two goals to Norwich, both in the air, with their entire defensive line penned back. The shots after Liverpool’s initial brace in the first eleven minutes were 12 to 10 for Norwich, with the home side getting 5 on target to LFC’s 3. Moreover, Norwich took more shots within the ‘Danger Zone’, the area smack in the middle of the 18. Food for thought for Chelsea, who will need everything they can muster next weekend to pull themselves back in the title race.

4. Lukas Podolski can be a very good player

The proof is in the pudding, and the pudding, in this case, is a football. Arsenal, who beat Hull 0-3, are still a point ahead of Everton in the race for fourth place.

5. There is nothing left to say about Moyes

A 2-0 decisive away loss against Everton, United’s 11th of the season. Even the “Moyes returns to Goodison” storyline won’t be enough to keep this around the papers for very long. Moyes incidentally refused to commit seppuku during the post-match presser, insisting his side had “passed well.” Well, good then, David.

6. Benfica are champions of Portugal

They accomplished the feat after beating Olhanense 2-0. Porto had been champions the three seasons prior, including that nightmare finale in May of last year. Someone has compiled ten of their best goals this season. Enjoy!

7. The Dutch Cup final was completely bananas

Ajax lost 5-1 to underdogs PEC Zwolle. Ajax fans helped suspend the game by throwing flares onto the pitch as soon as PEC made their first attack. Edwin van der Sar angrily pleaded with supporters to knock it off. Hoarding signs were burned. I don’t know…

8. Berba Lives

Monaco’s Dmitar Berbatov scored a peach against against Nice. You could say it was a ‘Nice’ goal. Yep. It was his third goal in nine appearances since joining the Nouveau Riche.

Juventus' Pepe and Bologna's Gillet and Casarini lay on the ground after colliding during their Italian Serie A soccer match at the Juventus Stadium in Turin

Right now, the Daily Mail is leading with four stories on today’s Copa Del Rey final between Real Madrid and Barcelona. This is how we know it’s a big deal. Real Madrid face a Barcelona in canned crisis, while Carlo Ancelotti are without Cristiano Ronaldo, opening up the requisite British angle with the heart-shaping Welsh anime character Gareth Bale.

This means a lot of English journalists and fans will witness Pepe and Busquets attempting to lessen our collective faith in humanity in their quest to win a football match. There will be Tweets about “rolling around on the carpet,” and about simulation and Spanish football and staying on your feet and the same, stale debate which continues to permeate football, and define it outside its confines, particularly in America.

It seems Gary Neville is tired of this moralism. Last night on Sky, the former Manchester United defender railed on West Ham’s Matt Jarvis for failing to fall on the ground when challenged in the box against Arsenal.

The video has been taken down, but 101GG has the transcript:

He should have gone down. Well done, your team haven’t won a game.

You can either be an angel and do what Matt Jarvis did and get a pat on the back off his Nan when he goes home tonight, or he can win his team a penalty.

The referee won’t give it if you don’t go down. Sam [Allardyce] said it, if you don’t go down you don’t get a penalty. It’s a foul.

I suppose in some ways people can say ‘It’s disappointing to hear you say that Gary’ – well then, be disappointed because ultimately that’s the game.

What can one write about diving that hasn’t already been written? Disregard that: h
ere’s a quick lesson about football:

1. It is very low scoring compared to other “team invasion” sports.

2. Clear cut chances, like that of a player taking a spot kick, come at a premium even in the best of times.

3. Referees are naturally reticent to award fouls in the box, because penalties convert at around 70%, and goals completely change games.

4. This means that even if a player is technically impeded in the 18, chances are if they doesn’t go to ground they’re not going to get a call (Allardyce was right!)

5. “Real vs simulated fouls” is not a real binary. Embellishment might mean something as simple as an extra roll on the floor after a legit foul.

6. What constitutes a “true” foul is in many ways subjective, despite deep post-match TV hermeneutics.

6. Players who are obvious divers are also bad divers. The point is not to get caught.

7. Defenders also “simulate,” particularly when it comes to disguising shirt pulling, raising their hand when an opposing player is onside, calling a goal kick even when the ball clearly last came off a defender, elbowing, hair pulling, you name it.

8. In fact, deception and subterfuge are all built into the sport in any number of ways.

So, there are two ways of looking at diving. One is to see it as a “moral issue”, and that doesn’t just mean the view that players who do it are bad and players who don’t do it are good. Neville’s take for example is also on the moral spectrum: players are morally obligated to dive because “winning is everything.”

There is another way to see simulation, however: the inevitable result of football simply being the sport that it is. Diving, rather than a moral choice, is a heuristic response to the circumstances of any given football match. You can try to resist it, but there will always be a tendency to go to ground with goals as valuable as they are. Diving for pens is just the extreme end of a spectrum of deceit which also includes moving the ball in free kicks and falsely claiming throw-ins.

I prefer the latter view (in case there was any doubt), simply because anything that gets this tired “debate” out of the headlines is a good thing.