Manchester United v West Bromwich Albion - Barclays Premier League

Quote of the Weekend

“I think we said at the start it could be a topsy-turvy Premier League season, and it may well prove to be that.” -David Moyes following Man United’s 1-2 loss to West Brom on Saturday.

Five Things We Unlearned

1. Manchester United Are Still a Title-Race Contender

First, let’s briefly discuss Manchester United’s 2-1 home defeat to West Brom. While a gross simplification, if one were to sum up United’s season so far in one sentence, you might say: “Last year’s underlying numbers without the incredible shot conversion courtesy of Robin van Persie.” Man United’s total shots ratio in that game (for an explanation scroll down to the table below) was .538, which isn’t terrible but isn’t great. That much isn’t different from last season, except they spent much of it in the lead, which naturally drove those numbers down a bit as opposition sides shot more to get back in their matches.

What is different from this early part of the season is the goals. Last season six games in, United had scored 14 and conceded 9. This season they’ve scored 8 and conceded 8. Almost all have been from set-pieces, and four of those were against the same team. Yes, they had a difficult set of fixtures to start the season, and that needs to be taken into account. Even so, Man United have had their worst league start since 1989. And this should sound the alarm as well:



2. Man United Are No Longer a Title Race Contender

“WHA!? He’d doing one of those things!”

Yes, so hold on. There are a couple of scenarios that might play out. The first is pretty unlikely, but let’s give it an airing anyway. Man United will be the third team in thirteen season to get 80 points in 32 games. Based on David Moyes’ recent remarks about the strength of his squad, I would say that’s a non-starter.

The other is also a long shot, but is worth at least talking a little about. You’ll note the Premier League points total cited by Grayson there is an average. The last season to finish with a total on the low end was in 2010-11, when Man United won the title on 80 points, nine ahead of Chelsea and City who were tied on 71.

There is very little evidence yet that this could be a down and dirty Premier League with a more humane points distribution than in seasons past. But this weekend the erstwhile title challengers Manchester City lost 3-2 to Aston Villa (although they comprehensively outshot the home side), adding to the “shock” 3-2 loss to Cardiff City . Liverpool and Arsenal continue to impress so far, but these are teams that have not finished near 80 points save for Liverpool’s near miss in 2008-09 (86 pts) and Arsenal’s Invincibles era. The weakest link in this theory would be Chelsea as they’ve only got a loss to Everton and a crap result in the Champions League to go on, plus Mourinho’s apologies for the greenness of his squad this season.

So it’s not looking good, but–broken record–it’s early.

3. Three at the Back is On the Way Out

Just the other day the former Liverpool manager Rafa Benitez, who has taken over Napoli and replaced their three-man defence under Walter Mazzari with a more familiar 4-2-3-1 formation, commented on the differences between Italian and English football:

My Napoli team have played five games so far in Serie A and we have been up against a different system in every game, with some opponents changing their system two or three times during a game. For those of you like numbers, we’ve faced 5-3-1-1, 5-3-2, 3-5-2, 4-3-3, 4-3-1-2, 4-4-2 and 4-1-4-1 and the challenge of counteracting and reacting to the systems is a great challenge for any coach in this country. It is more challenging than England, in that sense.

This echoes the rough impression many have had of Italian football in recent years, particularly following Euro 2012 and the Italian national team coach Cesare Prandelli’s unpredictable formations in that tournament (including a 3-5-2) which provided an alternative to the very familiar 4-2-3-1 (and Roy Hodgson’s soul-destroying two banks of four). The last time an English team employed a three man defence, the thinking goes, Man City lost to Ajax in the Champions League.

Well that didn’t stop Brendan Rodgers from kicking the can once more with Liverpool away against Sunderland on Sunday, putting out a 3-5-2 with Henderson and Enrique playing wing-backs. Michael Cox noted the weakness of the system, but also Liverpool’s ability to take advantage on the counter with Daniel Sturridge and the newly-returned Luis Suarez combining to great effect. Liverpool won 1-3 scoring on the counter attack.

So maybe there is room for a two-striker system in modern football. You just have to have wing-backs, apparently. Angels on the hair of a pin, I know…

4. Real Madrid’s Struggle Against Elche in the Midweek was a One-Time Blip

Well, two poor results in a row hardly count as a non-blip, and chances are Real Madrid will be just fine. Yet heads turned when a referee awarded Real’s Pepe a controversial penalty against Elche deep into stoppage time with the score level at 1-1 in the midweek La Liga fixture to save Madrid’s blushes, a decision that caused the head of the Spanish referees to wonder if the official from that match was “in the right frame of mind.”

El Derbi madrileño at the Santiago Bernebeu should have been the perfect opportunity for Carlo Ancelotti to set the record straight, particularly against their city rivals Atletico who hadn’t lost a match since a friendly back in July against Estudiantes. Instead, Atletico came away with a famous 0-1 victory with a goal from–who else?–Diego Costa, in the 11th minute.

While Real Madrid outshot Atletico, the numbers weren’t exactly out of the ballpark for a home team performance. Moreover, Ancelotti’s pricey double half-time substitution to put on both Bale and Modric for Di Maria (who ended up being Madrid’s most creative player despite getting caught in possession gifting Atletico the lead) and Asier Illarramend failed to ignite the home side.

It was Real Madrid’s first league defeat in the derby in 23 occasions. Spanish tabloid AS wasted no time in getting the knife out. You might remember Arsenal midfielder Santi Cazorla’s description of La Liga as a boring two horse race…todavía no, mi amigo.

5. Foul Throws Are Just Something You Never See in the Top Flight

Ivanovic did one against against Spurs on Saturday morning and the commentators laughed about Under 8s football in the Premier League. Then Sunderland committed one against Liverpool at the Stadium of Light and Arlo White chimed in for NBC Sports on how that should be something you learn not to do at seven years old. If that wasn’t enough, Raheem sterling followed up with one of his own in the 78th minute of the same game.

While stupid boring statistical science is probably annoyingly right and it was all just a funny coincidence, I must sate the need for a satisfying and convincing narrative. So here are two other possibilities: the first, that top flight footballers are now so ensconced in systems, techniques and elite level drills that they’ve forgotten the very basics of the game, like how not to mess up throw-ins. And the second: that Premier League referees have been asked to crack down on foul throws.

Not that it matters. Just take it as a sign that even the best of us can make dubm, sillly mistakes, from tim to teim.

Tactical Notes

In hockey circles it’s sometimes mentioned that Corsi, which compares shots in a similar way to TSR, is a “proxy for possession.” That’s because hockey teams that have the puck more shoot more. And in hockey, as a rule, the team that consistently shoot more than their opponents win more games.

This is true in a broad sense in football, but of course things differ from game to game, and it’s not always clear when comparing shots where tactical intention ends and just plain sucking begins. For example, there is a tactical case to be made that Brendan Rodgers’ may have deliberately invited pressure from Sunderland, particularly away from home, in order to open up space on the counter and increase the likelihood of scoring via Sturridge and Suarez. Perhaps the game plan was to force Sunderland to shoot from outside the box, either by pressing or risk fouling outside the box even with the subsequent free-kick:


Compare that game to say the Spurs Chelsea match in which Jose Mourinho’s side looked genuinely overrun, and were aided more by Spurs’ continued low shooting percentage on their way to a 1-1 draw. I think in many ways this aspect of possession in football makes it different than other so-called “invasion sports” like hockey.

GIF of the Weekend

Here come the Super Friends! (Toure and Giaccherini):

Interesting Read of the Day

A look at how Brazilian football has changed in recent years, from the Independent:

With the arrival of new stadiums and the accompanying astronomical prices, poorer fans are being pushed out, their places taken by wealthier, iPad brandishing supporters. “If I took my family to the Maracana I’d have to spend R$400,” said Antonio Nascimento Filho, secretary for football at the Ministry of Sport. “The less well-off are being excluded. It’s ridiculous that a sport of the people, built by the people, is shutting out poorer Brazilians.

Rolling Total Shots Ratio/PDO Table for the Premier League

Total shots ratio is shots for/(shots for + shots against), and it calculates shot dominance. It correlates very well to points finish in the table…for a better explanation, read this. In a few weeks’ time, we will include an expected points total in the table.

PDO meanwhile is just (sh% + sv%)*1000, and it is a rough measurement for luck, as these statistics tend to regress to the mean over time (except at the extreme positive end). A team with a low PDO should be expected to improve as the season progresses.

Finally, final third touches are a good predictor of future goals scored. Grayson has a post on the matter here, which breaks down the work of Mark Taylor.

Team P Pts TSR PDO Sh% Sv% Final 3rd Touches
Arsenal 6 15 0.527 1102 37.1 73.1 1189
Liverpool 6 13 0.459 1121 24.2 87.9 1078
Tottenham 6 13 0.718 1061 16.7 89.5 1372
Chelsea 6 11 0.656 1052 21.9 83.3 1151
Southampton 6 11 0.568 1049 19.2 85.7 1091
Manchester City 6 10 0.638 1010 37.8 63.2 1301
Hull 6 10 0.405 1047 31.6 73.1 779
Everton 5 9 0.598 923 23.1 69.2 1044
Aston Villa 6 9 0.442 1130 45.0 68.0 782
West Bromwich Albion 6 8 0.464 1158 37.5 78.3 919
Cardiff 6 8 0.380 1223 42.9 79.4 773
Manchester United 6 7 0.545 925 25.8 66.7 1296
Swansea 6 7 0.510 896 24.2 65.4 1057
Norwich 6 7 0.418 989 25.0 73.9 1054
Stoke 6 7 0.458 997 19.0 80.6 1018
Newcastle United 5 7 0.605 850 25.0 60.0 869
West Ham 6 5 0.459 1045 30.8 73.7 943
Fulham 6 4 0.287 991 22.2 76.9 767
Crystal Palace 6 3 0.395 893 25.0 64.3 796
Sunderland 6 1 0.515 783 25.0 53.3 994