To start, this is not an analytics post. I’m aware of sample size issues and such, but this post is mostly meant to use Opta data in tandem with basic game statistics and common sense to look into Montreal’s approach to the 2013 MLS campaign.
Major League Soccer is a fascinating league in that it appears to be somewhat of an outlier compared with Europe. I recently ran a TSR/PDO analysis on the MLS 2012 season and there is very little correlation between table position and total shots ratio. There is some discretion here: it’s only one season. But there are other examples of MLS being “weird.” Teams with less than 50% possession tend to win more, for example.
There are all sorts of possible explanations for this discrepancy, including the lack of promotion relegation leading to less emphasis on defense, the higher importance of individual skill over team play, the state of officiating etc. Until we get more information on this topic, this is all speculation. But in understanding what makes MLS weird, we might understand a bit more of what influences an overall league “style.” Read the rest of this entry »
The arrival of a new manager can be enough to galvanize an ailing side. It’s dubbed ‘the new manager effect’, and its place in the Premier League playbook is well established.
However, Mauricio Pochettino’s arrival at Southampton came in different, less uncertain circumstances. He took over at a club that didn’t need a new manager or its effect.
Before Nigel Adkins was sacked, Southampton were on a five game unbeaten run. The defensive errors that had offset their fine attacking play earlier in the season were being eradicated. His dismissal was surprising as Southampton were adjudged to have turned the corner, finally moving off the bottom of the Premier League table.
Yet in just a handful of games, Pochettino, formerly of Espanyol, has made incredible progress at Southampton.
Pochettino found a squad in Southampton capable of the style and brand of football he favours. Wholesale changes weren’t necessary. Instead the Argentine has merely tweaked what Adkins left before him. Read the rest of this entry »
If we take in our hand any volume; of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance; let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames: for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion. – David Hume
Jonathan Wilson wonders whether 4-2-3-1 has “lost its gloss” in his latest The Question article for the Guardian.
Tactical hermeneutics is a very interesting subject both to read and to discuss, but to my mind it is less reliable when applied to an entire formation irrespective of individual game, players or club.
Wilson makes a sensible argument for his view on the primary weakness of the 4-2-3-1: the space behind wingers, particularly when they are advanced on their full-back counterparts. He offers an example:
Robinho, whether by design or instinct, prospered there in the first half of the World Cup quarter-final between Brazil and Holland in 2010, never playing close enough to Gregory van der Wiel for the full-back to get tight to him but equally left largely untroubled by Arjen Robben. His goal stemmed from a run made from space into further space that opened in front of him, with Robben trailing hopeless in his wake.
This seems like a sound argument, but the 4-2-3-1 is used in such broad application by so many clubs in so many contexts, and with so many subtle (to the point of imperceptibility) mid-game changes that it becomes difficult to accept definitive statements of strength and weakness beyond single-game examples.
I think my problem…is one of form. Football tactics are so diffuse and context-specific that to point to any one overarching trend or movement is to risk gross oversimplification or omission. The best kind of tactical writing in my opinion is that which is anchored in specific games or moments; measuring their effect however on future trends presents a major challenge.
That’s why I think too that for too long, tactical analyses have given way to far too much subjectivity. If one amazing team like Barcelona favours a particular approach, it becomes very easy to read it into the approach of teams with ostensibly similar tactics. I also think that many tactical assertions are made without recourse to empirical evidence.
This is not to say that this kind of subjective interpretation of tactical trends, strengths and weaknesses is without value, but I do think it is subject to abuse. For example, it’s too often the case that some writers will imply a strong causal link between a certain, game-specific formation and a final outcome or set of outcomes.
In the case of Wilson’s argument for the weakness of 4-2-3-1 for example, there isn’t much in the way of non-anecdotal evidence that wingers are conceding goals by failing to track back in the empty space behind them. One could theoretically attempt some sort of analysis of the formation to see whether teams playing a 4-2-3-1 are more prone to attacks that begin from the exploitation of the space middle flanks, but this would be prone to all kinds of control problems. Formations shift in-game, wingers cut-inside, defensive midfielders move out wide, the game is in constant flux, and then managers make mid-game substitutions, change formations entirely.
One could argue that a certain tactical system would afford a team more chances than another, but again, this does not take into account the difference in opposition, or the ability of individual players.
Therefore, tactical analysis on the macro level resembles a kind of football metaphysics, a set of assertions that can neither be confirmed nor denied. You might think it merely dickish to point out, but I think the more we are aware of the shortcomings of this kind of tactical writing, the more honest we can be about what exactly we know about the relationship between one formation and a set of tendencies and outcome, and whether they in fact exist.
That said, I think it is also extremely wrong-headed to attempt to make the leap from broad statistical evidence like TSR or PDO to prescriptive tactical formations (this is essentially what Charles Reep attempted with his recommendation that teams try to rack up the shots from as few passes as possible).
But analyzing football tactical trends is still far too vague and subjective to be regarded as definitive. Even single game analysis is prone to different causal interpretations (the movement of a central defender allowed a forward to exploit space, etc.). This does not make it bad (or, as Hume said, worthy of the flames) necessarily, but it also doesn’t necessarily true in the empirical sense.
It appears we’re all (the media, I suppose) still pretty stupid when it comes to understanding the importance of football tactics. This applies both those who dismiss the subject out of hand, and those who purport to embrace it.
I write this because today news emerged that Brazilian website Globoesporte spent some time rooting through Chelsea’s locker room trash following their 1-0 loss to Corinthians in the Club World Cup final. They discovered what most papers are calling Chelsea’s “tactical secrets“:
The website has published photographs of crumpled print-outs showing where Chelsea’s players should be positioned at both attacking and defensive corner kicks, exhorting players in large red capital letters to “be aware of counter attack” while pushing forward, and to “immediately [push] up after we clear first ball” when defending set-pieces. The pictures also show that Chelsea’s cornertakers were told to signal where they were planning to send the set-piece by either raising or lowering their arm.
The Daily Mail‘s headline meanwhile screams, “Can [Chelsea's tactics sheets] now help Leeds pull off a cup shock?”, as if this was akin to Nikita Krushchev leaving the location of all the Soviet warheads on the kitchen table in Hyde Park on his visit to Eleanor Roosevelt.
First, some fairly conventional, game-specific, dead-ball tactical instructions aren’t exactly going to offer Chelsea’s opponents the keys to the kingdom. And while these crumpled papers are a curiosity, it’s sad that no-one has recognized their utter uselessness in trying to pick apart Rafa’s approach, beyond the bare-bones fact that it’s meticulous and he prefers man-marking on corners.
This insanity surrounding some bits of paper indicates the belief among many in the media—that managers are generals with complex war-plans, not UEFA license holders who try to win games through sensible preparation and planning, and that tactics are some sort of mysterious trick that cannot be let loose to “the enemy”—lingers on despite the Wilsons and Cox’s of the world preaching otherwise. Read the rest of this entry »
Norwich City’s relegation from the Premier League was confirmed as soon as Paul Lambert left the club for a new challenge at Aston Villa. Without the man who had taken them to two successive promotions and established them in England’s top flight, they were doomed.
On the day of Lambert’s departure, some British bookmakers had the Canaries as odds on to suffer the drop from English soccer’s top flight. Plus, there was second season syndrome to contend with (the soccer equivalent of the second album curse).
But just as Wigan have proved it’s possible for more modest clubs to establish themselves among the Premier League elite, Norwich have too.
Lambert’s replacement, former Newcastle United coach Chris Hughton, has so far managed to match his predecessor’s top-flight success, taking the Canaries to within just four points of the Champions League places.
However, what is most remarkable about Hughton’s continuation of Lambert’s legacy is that despite retaining much of the same squad, he has created a style of his own at Carrow Road. Read the rest of this entry »
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.
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. Read the rest of this entry »
Along with Arsenal’s seven-year trophy drought, Stoke City’s long ball and bully tactics and Roman Abramovich’s itchy trigger finger at Chelsea, Manchester United’s anaemic central midfield has become a tired soccer cliché.
Sir Alex Ferguson implements the transfer policy normally adopted by an overly-enthusiastic teenager playing Football Manager for the first time, overloading on top class attackers and ignoring other areas of his team desperate for rejuvenation. That’s the assumption, anyway.
No other area of United’s squad is in need of revitalizing than its central midfield. Persuading Paul Scholes to come out of retirement for a second spell with the Red Devils last season gave them the vigour only a new signing could provide. The problem was that new signing was 38 years old.
However, since then Sir Alex Ferguson has shown a willingness to find a solution to his central midfield issues before Scholes retires for good, most likely at the end of this campaign. His efforts have focused on one player in particular. Read the rest of this entry »