Richard Whittall

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Hello gang. First, a thank you to the readers who have stayed with us for the last few years as we’ve morphed from the Footy Blog to Counter Attack. Many of you have been here since the beginning, when Joe Ross provided news links every morning. You’ve stayed through personnel changes, name changes, podcast changes, and several years’ worth of quizzes.

Today, we’re changing again. This particular site is officially retired, but theScore’s footy coverage is just ramping up. All the great things you’ve come to expect from Counter Attack and thescore.com in general will continue at thescore.com/epl, thescore.com/liga, thescore.com/seri, thescore.com/bund, thescore.com/mls, and thescore.com/chlg.

If you just want to read me (which essentially means reading the blog) please bookmark thescore.com/author/richard-whittall. You can also bookmark your other favourite score contributors by changing the last name in the address bar. And if you have any questions, please feel free to hit me up here in the comments.

Please bookmark it all! All the stuff that appeared here daily will be there, along with our other regular contributors.

It’s been a blast, see you at the other place!

Manchester United v Everton - Barclays Premier League

It is a ritual now as predictable as the rising of the sun.

A manager is sacked, and in marches the League Managers’ Association to say that the sacked party was aggrieved, was owed better by all involved, was misled etc. etc. Following news yesterday Moyes was officially dumped, today the LMA weighed in:

“Throughout his time at United, David, as he always does, has conducted himself with integrity and professionalism, values that he believes in and that have been strongly associated with the club and its rich tradition.

“It is therefore sad to see the end of David’s tenure at United being handled in an unprofessional manner.”

At least one reputable journalist has noted a strain of hypocrisy in the LMA’s stance, particularly over their silence in the way David Moyes’ hiring was initially handled in the first place:

If the LMA is earnestly seeking longer managerial tenures, they won’t succeed by simply hauling out the tiny violin whenever one of their number is fired. The entire culture of English club football is stacked against them. The only way to remedy the situation would be to take some power out of the manager’s hands, say, in player recruitment and development, and leave the manager to focus on first team coaching and team selection. But of course they would never advocate for that. So as it stands, managers will continued to be sacked over and over and over again, and the LMA’s inability to stop it will only become more apparent.

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.

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.