Manchester City v Swansea City - Barclays Premier League

Quote of the Weekend

“It was a privilege to manage Fulham, one of the great clubs in the Premier League or anywhere in the world. I’m disappointed in this season but know there are better days ahead for Fulham and its supporters. I will always treasure my experience here and want to thank Mr Khan and everyone at Fulham for the opportunity.” -Martin Jol after being sacked as Fulham manager by chairman Shahid Khan and replaced by Rene Meulensteen, following Fulham’s 3-0 loss to West Ham. The full statement can be read here.

Five Things We Unlearned This Weekend

1. Spurs’ failure to score is sure fire evidence that Villas-Boas can’t coach

It’s become conventional wisdom over the last few days that Tottenham’s low shooting percentage, which has been pretty poor since the start of the season, is likely the fault of the crappy management of one Andre Villas-Boas. As an stats-minded ESPNFC columnist wrote a few days ago:

Chances are being created. In fact, Spurs have had more shots (18.3 per game) than any other team in the Premier League having averaged the third most possession (58.8 percent). So they are keeping the ball, and are they are doing so high up the pitch, with a highest proportion of their play in the attacking third of the pitch (32 percent) in the league. This is leading to plenty of chances and the worst conversion rate in the league (4.1 percent), but the quality of those chances is part of the problem.

After which we learn from the writer that that Spurs tend to shoot from further out than other EPL teams, with the third highest number of shots from outside the 18 yard box at 57%, and the third lowest inside the 6 yard box at 4%. Which all sounds like “case closed” until we look at the other teams posting those kind of lopsided numbers. Newcastle, with 8% in the six and 60% outside the 18 have 19 goals, have 8 more goals than Spurs and the 7th highest total in the league. Even Aston Villa, with 58% of shots from outside the 18 and only 1 % in the six, have 13 goals, two more than Spurs. And neither of those teams comes close to Spurs in shot volume, both in total shots and shots on target. Yet for all that, Spurs have had the lowest shooting percentage in the league since the start of the season.

So what gives? Are Spurs’ just really bad at shooting? Maybe, except we know from regression analysis that team shot percentages are more a function of random variation or luck than of skill.

Which brings us to Tottenham’s 2-2 draw at Man United. While one game isn’t much evidence of anything, Spurs’ performance could be seen as a slight regression in their shooting percentage. Tottenham enjoyed ten shots (only two more than United) with four on target. With two goals, using the on-target shooting (as one should in measuring shot percentages), that gives as a shooting percentage of 50%. Both goals were from outside the 18 yard box, too.

While this won’t exactly mean an end to Villas-Boas’ travails in the Premier League or anything (their high save percentage seems to be regressing too with 8 goals in two games!), it is perhaps a reason not to blame AVB and the Spurs forwards for their terrible shooting just yet…though he sure is in fighting form.

2. Gareth Bale at Real Madrid, eh? What a flop!

Remember the reason why Spurs were supposed to be so terrible this season? Yes! The Welsh Wonder Gareth Bale had disappeared into the wilds of La Liga leaving Spurs to flail about without their sure thing in front of goal (often from long distances). For a time though, it seemed angry Tottenham supporters could at least take comfort in the travails of Bale in Madrid, at first waylaid by injury and then slow to come off the mark with Ronaldo racking up the plaudits.

Now, in early December, Bale is up to 7 goals and six assists in 9 league matches for Real Madrid. Those numbers are inflated a little, from Bale’s spectacular hat-trick against Real Valladolid this weekend.

Sid Lowe wrote on the feat for the Guardian, noting that Bale is only the second British player to score three goals in a game in La Liga, after Gary Lineker for Barca. But he quotes from a Spanish journalist who has it just right:

“He does not ‘play’, because orchestral football is not his thing,” ran Pepe Samano’s match report in El Pais. “But he scores goals and that’s no small matter. He assists too. He is an interesting case. He does not shine minute by minute but he is like an ant who is leaving a mark, step by step. He did so again against Valladolid, who were demolished by the British player who is paving the way with goals. This game was Bale, Bale and more Bale.”

3. Modern football is hopelessly partisan, unlike in the good old days

Cardiff City vs Arsenal should have been a rough affair for Arsenal, at least in terms of their reception in the stands. After all, Arsene Wenger’s side arrived with the in form Aaron Ramsey in tow, a player who last visited in 2009 only to be subbed off in the 59th minute after a fierce reception from the home team.

Perhaps it was Olivier Giroud’s moment of (perhaps unintentional) fair play after he refused to attack a through ball in an offside position after a touch from Mesut Ozil which the linesman missed, but things were downright polite following Ramsey’s powerful header in the 29th minute of play. After a raucous response from the away end and his team mates, Ramsey elected not to celebrate. And in turn, Cardiff City supporters stood and applauded, a standing ovation for a player their club had nurtured to maturity. Ramsey explained after the match:

“I was really pleased the way that the fans reacted, I thought they were fantastic. And hopefully I put on a performance for them.

“This is where everything began and hopefully they’ve seen the player that they produced. They realised that I needed to make the next step, I think, and they were really respectful. And I gave them my respect as well by not celebrating.”

Commentators often point to the evils of modern football as if the last hundred years of the sport were not marked by similar, if not worse, acts of selfishness and brutality. In much the same way, they believe the gentlemanly sport of old is long gone. And yet there it was on Saturday, on satellite and broadband and gif’d to the hilt.

4. The Panenka is dead

This past October, Pato stepped up for Corinthians in the quartefinals of the Copa Do Brasil, in a penalty against Gremio that would have seen the former Milan player’s side progress to the semis. Perhaps feeling he had something to prove, Pato erred on the side of the audacious–he went for the Panenka, and he failed. Miserably. Here’s James Horncastle on the spot kick from hell:

It’s a double-edged sword, the Panenka. Score and you humiliate the keeper. Miss and you appear even more foolish than if you’d blasted it wide, over the bar, or made the `keeper work harder to make a save by going for either corner. Pato fell on that sword.

That notion of not making the goalkeeper work hard enough reflects on the taker as well. The nonchalance required to feather the perfect Panenka means that, should it not come off, the player can come across like he doesn’t care, like he is taking the situation too lightly and not treating it with the seriousness it deserves.

Pato is not the only player to have failed in the attempt. Gladbach’s Branimir Hrgota may have faced threats of decapitation after his saved Panenka sent his team out of the DFP Cup. Before that, Jackson Martinez failed to score his against Rio Ave. In a digital age, it’s remarkable anyone still tries it.

Except of course for Zlatan, who likely feels he has nothing left to prove:

Goal Ibrahimovic – PSG 2-0 Olympique Lyon (01… by Sport-Today-2014

This was no small match either, for PSG against Lyon (PSG won 4-0). What is remarkable too is the placement would have been difficult even if the keeper had reacted, throwing into doubt the idea that the Panenka is inherently risky. It’s back, if it ever left us, that is.

5. Unbeaten streaks are inherently good

In the 2003-04 season, an Arsenal team consisting of Patrick Vieira, Thierry Henry, Robert Pires and other greats inherited the name “Invincibles” from the 1889 Preston North End side that finished the inaugural football league season undefeated. What few pundits bother to mention is the team’s points total: 90. While impressive, the total was five points shy of the highest all-time Premier League points total earned by Chelsea FC the next season, the first under manager Jose Mourinho. Chelsea won three more games than Arsenal in 04-05, but they lost once by a single goal, 1-0 to Man City. And yet that 03-04 Arsenal team won “Best Team” in Twenty seasons in the Premier League.

This is not to besmirch that storied Arsenal side, but rather to point out the value we place on teams going undefeated. This past weekend, Roma salvaged their current unbeaten streak in Serie A after Kevin Strootman scored in the final seconds the of their away match against Atalanta, making the score 1-1. While pleased at the outcome, after the match Strootman was careful to put the emphasis on wins. “It is impossible to always win,” Strootman said, “but it’s very good to be still unbeaten.” Is it?

Juventus are currently three points ahead of Roma in the table on 37 points, and, crucially they have one draw compared to Roma’s three. No doubt they don’t mind their single blemish so far this season, a 4-2 loss to Fiorentina, because they know the math: three points for a win, one for a draw. One win is worth three ties. Should Roma somehow draw the rest of their matches this season, they’ll finish on 58 points, which would have been good enough for 8th place last season, ahead of Catania. While going unbeaten is an honour, far more important is to push on for the wins, even at the risk of exposure at the back.

Tactical Notes

Sean Ingle has a really great column up this morning in collaboration with Prozone looking at data that supports the idea that the era of long-ball and direct football in the English top flight is for intents and purposes over. You should read the entire post, but here’s part of Ingle’s explanation as to why this is the case:

So what explains these changes? Clearly the influence of foreign managers and players in the Premier League era is considerable – immigration in English football, as so often in human history, has brought considerable benefits. But such influences were apparent a decade ago. I suspect it is the success of Barcelona and Spain, allied with improved technique, that has provided a blue (and-red-and-yellow) print for others to aspire to and follow.

Analytics is slowly having an effect, too. We know, for instance, that corners have a much lower success rate than once thought, as detailed by Chris Anderson and David Sally in The Numbers Game. That, as Colin Trainor has shown, headers from the same position as shots in the penalty area have a lower chance of going in. And that Reep’s original analysis, which sowed the seed for long-ball football by claiming 80% of goals are scored with five passes or fewer and that possession was not particularly important, is somewhat simplistic.

This got the old gears in me noggin cranking away, thinking about what, at least anecdotally, appears to be an improvement in form among some promoted sides to the Premier League, as typified by Swansea a couple of seasons ago and Saints under Pochettino. Hull for example beat Liverpool 3-1 this weekend, but the goals for the home side weren’t entirely the work of direct football. Jake Livermore’s opener came from some nicely work short passes on the right flank. Hull’s second was the result of a long pass into the box, but not after some short, relatively patient interplay which ended with David Meyler’s goal. Though keeper Allan McGregor did often send deep passes to the front man Yannick Sagbo, Hull were anything but one note in this approach. Long ball isn’t dead, but rather it’s become integrated with a wider palate of tactical options.

Goal of the Weekend

Yeah. It was Sandro for Spurs:

Good Read of the Day

Bobby McMahon remarks on the upcoming World Cup draw this Friday, and how the World Cup seeding will be unfair, but not for the reasons you might expect. Instead, the group stages matches could resemble Around the World in 80 Days:

Next summer the vast majority of the 32 countries will zig-zag across the country and many will also have to also cope with extreme temperature changes, sometimes from game to game.

Let’s take the unfortunate country that will be drawn into position E4. Country E4 will start in Port Alegre (average day time temperature 68) and then fly 340 miles to Curitiba (avg temp 66) – so far so good. But then follows a 1,700 mile plane ride to Manaus, the heart of the Amazon for the final group game in 83% humidity and a temperature of 90F.