The Lead

Michael Cox has written a bold piece on ESPNFC this morning on the reason why the two Manchesters City and United dominate the Premier League table while still under-performing in Europe. He argues that both teams have eschewed quality for quantity, choosing to pack their first teams with individual stars at the cost of tactical coherence. The money quote:

The best football sides have quality players, but also a clear strategy, making them greater than the sum of their parts. Neither United nor City have achieved this in 2012/13, and although Sunday’s game will be packed with excellent footballers and probably plenty of goals, it won’t be a contest between two great teams – the Premier League currently doesn’t have any.

Coincidentally, James Grayson wrote a post ranking Premier League sides this season so far in Total Shots Ratio—a metric that indicates a team’s ability to control the ball and create chances—and PDO, which measures roughly how lucky a team has been.

The results are striking. In the first category, TSR, Manchester City ranks first at .653, and Man United rank 6th with .565. In terms of PDO, Man United are third and City 7th. Incidentally, Man United’s shot conversion rate is an unsustainably high 29.8%, a figure that Grayson argues is almost certain to come down as the season progresses. Their save percentage is 15th in the league, however, so chances are both figures will level out.

Anyway, this is a lovely example of tactical impressions gaining a little more context with some simple predictive metrics. First, there is some evidence that Man United’s current strategy of conceding goals whilst scoring them at will on comparatively few shots may not allow them to sustain a title run against a Man City that, despite impressions, is far more solid in controlling play.

Also, while Man City leads the Premier League over 15 games with a TSR of .653, its Champions League TSR over 6 matches against some of the best teams in Europe (particularly Real Madrid) was a mediocre .380. This difference is radical enough to question Mancini’s preparation for mid-week fixtures (which has been historically poor), but it also points to the possibility that the Premier League is a significantly easier test (duh duh duh). City’s quality of competition in the PL for example ranks 5th in the league, while United’s is 13th. City have for the most part faced decent competition and prevailed with an impressive record both statistically and in points totals.

The conclusion? Cox’s theory that the club is winging it with star players is plausible; it’s root cause however may be the quality of teams down the table. City are in fact arguably the more dominant team, and United could be relying on the individual brilliance of their squad to convert shots to goals well above the mean between now and May. The issue of a lack of tactical coherence of the two Manchesters may come down to the fact they don’t need it to succeed against the quality on offer from the 2012-13 Premier League.


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