As the new Premier League season got under way, Manchester United began the defence of their title in unfamiliar territory. For the first time in the league’s history, Sir Alex Ferguson would not be at the club’s helm. Some would argue that the Scot’s achievements during the last few years at his club were among his greatest ever. The argument is based upon a widely circulated notion that the current squad is not the best he’s ever had, especially as it does not possess a dominant or quality central midfield partnership. There were even calls for David Moyes, the new manager, to sign 2 recognized central midfielders during the summer transfer window. He ended up with one, his former Everton player, the Belgian Marouane Fellaini.
The purpose of this article is to analyze the criticisms laid above both objectively and tangibly. In order to do that, we will establish a few facts and put the “performances” of the central midfield under the microscope on a match-by-match basis over during the course of their title winning season in 2012/13. Whilst it is unlikely that a conclusive assessment to either extreme may be formed, it is more than likely that both sides of the argument would become clearer to the audience, who can, consequently, provide educated assessments on the subject.
Who Played There in 2012/13?
Manchester United’s main central midfield partnership last season saw Michael Carrick team up with Tom Cleverley. A third player joined them quite often as Ferguson favored going with 3 in midfield during many of the games (either as a 4-2-3-1 or a 4-3-3). However, the said player would usually play in an advanced role, something Wayne Rooney grew accustomed to. The statistics below exhibit some key stats from the players who filled the 2 deeper midfield roles last season. Phil Jones sat ahead of the defence in a few matches, however also played in central defence and right back and therefore did not complete enough matches in the former role to warrant inclusion.
Michael Carrick was almost an ever-present last season. For many, he was the unsung hero of United’s success and has vastly improved over the past 2 seasons. He has begun contributing defensively, an aspect of his game which had a lot to be desired for in the past. Cleverley started the season brightly but critics argued that he faded as the season went on into a crucial period. Giggs and Scholes offered experienced heads as partners for Carrick and between each other posted impressive contributions, or so it seemed. Brazilian, Anderson, continues to frustrate critics and onlookers. Although technically brilliant, his lack of consistency has prevented him from settling into a regular role in his favored central midfield position.
What We Learn from the Statistics
Michael Carrick comes up in the top 20 in the Premier League from central midfield when it comes to interceptions made. At the same time, in terms of tackling he placed in the top 30 from central midfield. His overall placing in each of those categories is significantly higher when it comes to actual interceptions and tackles as many of his counterparts played far less games but places higher due to the per game ratios used. In terms of assists, he comfortably placed himself in the top 10 from the position. Carrick also provided the 3rd most number of passes per game and in fact the most total number of passes completed in the Premier League. Interestingly, 37% of his passes were forward ones whilst only 8% of them backwards. His percentage of passes forward was higher than that of Santi Cazorla, Mikael Arteta, Yaya Toure or Steven Gerrard among others. The Englishman has been dogged by criticism over his career with respect to the type of passes he undertakes. As he has aged, the criticism has waned and the level of appreciation for his talents increased. He’s currently arguably the best (and maybe only) true English central midfielder in the ilk of a Spaniard like Xabi Alonso or Xavi.
Assessing Performances in Game-Time
Its difficult to review the above statistics and make a conclusive assessment, one way or the other, in terms of United’s central midfield. What may help would be to statistically review their performances head-to-head against counterparts in the Premier League during the course of last season. With that in mind, we’ve assessed all those games and highlighted a sample size which looks at a variety of matches, from wins, to draws as well as defeats defeats, both home and away, in environments that may be more telling for the reader.
In April, towards the end of the season, but crucially before they had clinched the title, United took on West Ham at Upton Park. During that game they came up against the imposing duo of Mohammed Diame and Gary O’Neill. West Ham’s partnership attempted almost half the number of passes of their counterparts. Almost every key aspect of a contest between the two partnerships was more or less similar. Although Diame did score a crucial goal which gained the home side a draw. West Ham also put in slightly better work in the middle when it came to intercepting balls from United. Although that could also be partly due to the amount of passes through attempted by the away side.
A few days earlier, United hosted noisy neighbors Manchester City at Old Trafford. It was set to be a huge step towards winning back the title but by the time the full time whistle was heard, Man City had clawed themselves back into the title race, albeit in vain. United’s central midfield succeeded with 86% of their passes whilst their City counterparts led by Yaya Toure hit 88%. United were on the defensive foot and this was further exhibited with the central midfield achieving 12 tackles and 7 interceptions as opposed to 5 and 2 respectively for the visitors. They also turned the ball over 3 times to their opponents whilst City’s partnership were immaculate in that respect. City went on to win 2-1 at Old Trafford. The earlier match up between the two was at the Etihad Stadium on December 9, 2012. Again, Man City fared a little better than United in the passing accuracy game with 82% against 78%, although the number of passes attempted was far more balanced this time around. Almost every other stat was on par with each other in the area. However, City contributed a goal from the area even though United succeeded with 2 key passes from the deeper position against City’s nil. The game was balanced just as the midfield battle seemed to be, but United took the victory with a last-gasp goal by Robin van Persie.
Other key clashes included United’s February clash with QPR at Old Trafford. United ran out 2-0 winners and this included one goal from central midfield, a rarity for the home side. Passing accuracy was 77% in the middle of the park for both sides, even though United attempted more passes through their central midfielders. QPR were a bit more “cavalier” from that part of the pitch and completed 2 key passes against 1 but this also meant they turned the ball over 5 times in the crucial area against the solitary time United did so.
United’s two clashes with Tottenham were both interesting and revealing. The first one took place at the end of September, 2012, at Old Trafford. Spurs central midfield is far more physical in nature and much more aggressive. Spurs were happy to sit back and let United dominate the play in that area instead choosing to go in hard with tackles and intercept the ball in key areas, launching quick counter attacks. United’s central midfield attempted almost 3 times as many passes as the visitors, with an 89% accuracy, which exhibits the fact that a lot of the passing took place in deeper and safe areas. Spurs on the under hand used a quick tempo, ran with the ball far more from central midfield and hit an 84%% pass accuracy in the area. However, they intercepted the ball 13 times, more than 3 times the figure United’s duo achieved. They intercepted the ball twice as many times as the hosts as well. Interestingly, they also hit 4 key passes in the game and that is an impressive achievement by any measure by any central midfield of two players, especially as they only had a total of 56 passes, as opposed to United’s 256, through which the home side only achieved 2 key passes. Spurs ended up winning 3-2 thanks to an assist directly coming from the central midfield. The return game was in January at White Hart Lane and this time around Spurs were far more adventurous, and the possession stats in the area were much more balanced with Spurs passing it around more through their duo. Furthermore, Spurs succeeded with 5 key passes, another high figure as opposed to the 1 that United’s partnership achieved. United succeeded with twice as many tackles in the area and were dispossessed less and turned the ball over less than the opponents. The final result was a draw.
Other close encounters including those against Swansea and Norwich away, in the first half of the season. United failed to win either, drawing against the former and losing against the latter. But little or no blame can be attached to the central midfield when one looks at the stats. They were better in possession, and dominated passing too. They achieved more key passes in both matches. They also out-tackled their counterparts.
United’s away clash at St. James Park, historically a difficult place for the visitors in October, 2012, was another interesting match-up when it came to central midfield. Newcastle’s partnership of Tiote and Cabaye, on paper look a good combination, albeit both physically on the small side. United’s partnership were just about more accurate in the passing department, getting close to 87% success there. Interestingly, Newcastle’s central midfield had 5 key passes and also had more interceptions and less turnovers. They still lost the game 3-0 and this included a rare goal contribution from United’s partnership.
Finally, Manchester United’s two-games at Merseyside against Liverpool and Everton provided a similar pattern of stats. Firstly, against the blues in August, United’s partnership attempted almost two and a half times as many passes and were far more accurate with the ball than their opponents. They also out-tackled their counterparts whilst the other key stats were similar, except a key assist from Everton which resulted in the only goal of the match. Against the reds, United saw less of the ball in the area. Almost every other key stat was shared there too. This time around Liverpool scored a goal through one of its central midfielders. Nevertheless, United won 2-1.
What have we learned having put Manchester United’s central midfield under the microscope? Its difficult to be definitive in providing a final assessment to the initial question posed in the article. However, it is possible to deduce certain realities when it comes to the topic at hand.
1) Manchester United did not provide consistency to its ideal central midfield partnership last season. This could partly be down to availability but at the same time, Sir Alex Ferguson’s insistence on squad rotation made it difficult for at least 1 of the spots in the partnership to be filled consistently. However, looking at the performances and stats of some of the players, one could argue that other than Michael Carrick no one really warranted a regular spot in the position either.
2) Goals were hard to come by from the position. Only 7 goals from 81 starts (including some starts for Anderson, Giggs and Cleverly in other positions) and 32 sub appearances. To put this into perspective Marouane Fellaini scored 11 times on his own last season, England captain Steven Gerrard scored 9 times, Newcastle’s Cabaye and Arsenal’s Arteta had 6 each, whilst Liverpool’s maligned central midfielder Josh Henderson contributed 5 from 18 starts. However as a partnership, United did not get out-scored by their direct opponents in the games they played (7 goals against 7).
3) In the creativity department, United’s central midfielders contributed 6 assists between them over the course of the season. To put this into context, Yaya Toure had 5 on his own throughout last season. Swansea’s De Guzman had 6, whilst Fellaini had 5. Steven Gerrard led all central midfielders with 9 last season. United’s total of 6 was shared between 3 players (with a further 3 not contributing), and was led by Carrick’s 4 assists.
4) Although they were rarely “out-fought” in head-to-head match-ups, the stats show that over the course of the season, when it came to the defensive side of the game, the numbers posted were solid but not spectacular. Other than Carrick, no other player broke the 2 per game ratio when it came to tackles and interceptions and only 1 other player broke the 50 passes per game ratio. On first inspection that suggests that Carrick plays the ball while his partner works harder to get it back or get into the box to contribute the finishing touches to an attack. However, this was not the case as none of his partners were prolific or improved upon his defensive numbers. However, as a partnership over the course of the season United’s central midfield posted 30% less tackles than their direct opponents and just under 40% less interceptions.
5) Five central midfield partnerships hit double figures when it came to tackles successful against Man United in a game. United’s only managed to do so once.
6) On a game to game basis United’s central midfield were not sloppy in possession dominating the passing 31 times. The 7 occasions during which they were “out-passed” included Arsenal (a), Chelsea (h), Everton (h), Spurs (a), Wigan (a), Man City (h) and Liverpool (a).
7) The Carrick – Cleverley starting partnership was the most successful one followed by Carrick – Scholes. In fact, Carrick formed one-half of the 4 most successful partnerships they had. Ryan Giggs formed the least successful partnership over the course of the season when he teamed up with Carrick, seeing United lose half the games they started together.
8) Whilst United’s partnership usually keeps their counterparts on par with themselves, they do not dominate them either other than in the passing department.
9) United’s partnerships turned the ball over more than their counterparts over the course of the season.
10) On 6 occasions did United’s central midfielders post 100+ passes in a game. Carrick did so 4 times whilst Scholes twice. In fact, against against Spurs at home and Villa away they both had 100+ games. Carrick’s season high 134 during the latter, whilst Scholes high was 148 against the former.
It is harsh to suggest that Manchester United’s central midfield is its Achilles Heel. However, when you look at the fact that they are the champions and have the league’s top scorer as well as one of its meanest defenses, it is also difficult to suggest other positions that should be strengthened ahead of the central midfield. A lack of goals and final-third creativity is evident. At the same time, whilst most of the other 19 sides in the Premier League have a favored partnership in the middle of the park, United have failed to cement one. This may largely be attributed to Ferguson’s style of management. Moyes may choose a different avenue and rotate less in key areas such as this.
Furthermore, the signing of Marouane Fellaini brings both goals and assists into the side as well as better defensive numbers than all of United’s current midfielders, even though some of his numbers had been posted through playing in a more advanced role. Nevertheless, a Carrick – Fellaini partnership may be what significantly improves United’s central midfield allowing it to dominate its opponents far more in that area.
With special thanks to Who Scored for their range of statistics on the 2012/13 Premier League season
As another pre-season draws to a close, Europe’s major leagues are on the brink of relaunching again. France and Germany have kicked off already. England, Italy and Spain will do so shortly. The summer saw inflated transfer-fees and arguably as little value for money in the transfer market as one can remember. A number of major players changed leagues too. Alvaro Negredo, Jesus Navas, and Gonzalo Higuain led the La Liga exodus. The Spanish league was arguably the biggest loser when it came to talent. It also lost Jose Mourinho and Marcelo Pellegrini to the Premier League. The Premier League saw an influx of talent from all over Europe. They included some of the above names as well as Fernandinho, Bony, Guy Medel, and Andre Schurrle. Looking at Europe’s top leagues, what can one expect from the season ahead?
The Premier League is the big winner of the summer transfer window on many levels. Its gained a couple of household names in the managerial merry-go-around. Its also seen an influx of talent from abroad. The biggest loss will be that of Sir Alex Ferguson. However, Manchester United’s loss could be the Premier League’s gain (in a competition way). Its thrown the title race wide open. The margins between the top sides are as close as ever. Three sides go into the season with little between them (Chelsea, Manchester City and Manchester United). Tottenham will have title aspirations if they keep hold of Gareth Bale. Arsenal, well the less said about their summer activity the better. Its hard to see how they can strengthen the side now although buying Julio Cesar would be a start even with his high wages. Arsenal has missed out on many players that would have improved their side. The list is endless and could include Medel who joined Cardiff City recently. This illustrates that Arsene Wenger has not only lost players to rivals but to sides that are below Arsenal in the reputation table. Liverpool will be aiming to break into the top four and keeping Luis Suarez away from Arsenal makes sense on many levels as that would be the side they would be challenging for that spot.
Champion – Chelsea
Rest of Top 4 – Manchester City, Manchester United, Spurs
Bottom 3 – Stoke, Hull, Crystal Palace
Biggest Surprise (Team) – Swansea to finish in top 6 / Southampton to finish in top 8
Biggest Surprise (Player) – Bony
If one had to sum up what has gone on in Spain this summer, then it would be simple. The top 2 arguably got stronger whilst the rest of the pack fell further away. Valencia, Real Sociedad, Malaga, Sevilla and Atletico Madrid each lost some of their best players and in some cases more than one. Did they replace them adequately? Not likely. What this means is that you can expect Barcelona and Real Madrid to be approximately 30 points away from the rest of the pack but it also means that one should keep an eye on the battle for the rest of the Champions League and Europa League spots. The summer’s biggest saga involves Barcelona’s pursuit of a center back. As the transfer window draws to a close it remains to be seen who they draft into the squad in a position that has hampered them over the past 2 seasons.
Champion – Real Madrid
Rest of the Top 4 – Barcelona, Atletico Madrid, Athletic
Bottom 3 – Elche, Almeria, Valladolid
Biggest Surprise (Team) – Sevilla in bottom 6
Biggest Surprise (Player) – Morata
The biggest action was off-the-field this summer in Germany. Bayern Munich replaced treble-winning manager Jupp Heynckes with former Barcelona manager Pep Guardiola. When it was announced some critics argued that the Spaniard took the easy way out by choosing a side that’s already on top, making it “easier” to add trophies to his already impressive haul. However, as the season started, signs suggested that it would not be as clear sailing as they had thought. Firstly, Guardiola has tried to stamp his authority on the team’s tactics as one would have expected. He has experimented with Lahm in midfield and going with a 4-1-4-1 which has seen Muller play as the main striker more than Croat Mandzukic. At the same time some question marks have been raised about his preference of Thiago in the hole which means that main-stay Schweinsteiger may not be an automatic choice. Whilst its still early days, there are sure to be some fireworks around the side that worked hard to lose the label of FC Hollywood in recent years. Meanwhile, Jurgen Klopp has arguably strengthened his side far more than one could have imagined. Having lost Mario Gotze, Dortmund fought tooth and nail to resist the sale of Pole Lewandowski, instead choosing to lose him on a free transfer next summer. They brought in Sokratis to add cover in defence with Mkhitaryan and Aubameyang in the more advanced roles. The latter scored a hat-trick on his debut and adds immense pace to the Dortmund attack. Mkhitaryan is not only a goal threat but is considered one of Europe’s most exciting up and coming players.
Champion – Dortmund
Rest of the Top 4 – Bayern Munich, Schalke, Leverkusen
Bottom 3 – Braunschweig, Augsburg, Frankfurt
Biggest Surprise (Team) – Hamburg to break into top 6 finally
Biggest Surprise (Player) – Max Kruse & Son
Juventus finally brought in the striker they had been aiming for the past couple of seasons. In fact, they purchased two this summer. Fernando Llorente and Carlos Teves. On paper they have all the credentials to form a lethal partnership but the team has not gelled as quickly as one would have expected in pre-season. Question marks already hang over Llorente’s long-term future at the club. As a new season begins, a lot of pundits are tying Juve’s chances with Andrea Pirlo’s form and ability at the winter stage of his career. That is also what Milan fans are being driven by. They expect Pirlo to wane sooner rather than later and allow their side to close the gap. The most interesting project seems to be the one at Napoli. Rafa Benitez has a winning track record however tactically it will be a lot of work to get things smoothed out quickly as Napoli aim to successfully convert a back 3 to a back 4. Question marks exist over Maggio and Zuniga’s ability to slot into full back positions. However, the most exciting signing of the summer is at the other end for Napoli. Gonzalo Higuain is Europe’s most lethal finisher and he will help the Naples faithful forget the name of Edinson Cavani sooner rather than later. If Benitez is successful expect Napoli to push Juventus as close as they have been pushed in recent years. Inter Milan continue their rebuilding phase under Walter Mazzarri. It remains to be seen whether they can get back into the Champions League positions this summer, as the top 3 are likely to remain the same top 3 of the past season.
Champion – Milan
Rest of the Top 3 – Juventus, Napoli
Bottom 3 – Sassuolo, Verona, Chievo
Biggest Surprise (Team) – Fiorentina
Biggest Surprise (Player) – Martens
Historically it’s been said, in football, getting to the top of the league is one thing but staying there is a whole different ball game. More often than not teams fail to defend the league title that they had worked so hard to gain in the first place. Over the past 20 years in some of Europe’s biggest leagues, only a handful of sides have managed to successfully defend their league titles. The question remains what, if any trends, exist between the sides that have managed to win back to back titles and whether there are lessons to be learned by new-be champions from their predecessors who had failed to defend their titles.
What we will do here is to analyze seven cases of clubs that failed to defend their famous league title victory the next season. The study will analyze the period since the 1992/93 season in the Premier League (Blackburn Rovers winners in 94/95 and Manchester City winners in 2011/12), Ligue 1 (Lille winners in 2010/11 and Montpellier winners in 2011/12), Serie A (Roma winners in 2000/01), Bundesliga (Dortmund winners in 2001/2) and La Liga (Deportivo winners in 1999/00). It is worth stating that there had been a number of other sides within the respective leagues that had failed to defend their titles including Stuttgart, Arsenal, Marseille and Wolfsburg among others, however, it was decided that the above formed an interesting platform for analysis. When it came to analyzing sides that had managed to win back-to-back titles, the selection pool was considerably smaller. A small condition was also put in for the sake of the integrity of the study and that was for a team to have been considered for selection for this aspect, there must have been at least an 8 season gap between their back-to-back successes and their previous league triumph. This was done so to isolate a side that could lay claim to be considered part of a larger successful era over a longer period (take Bayern Munich and Manchester United for instance). With that in mind, Dortmund (2010-12), Chelsea (2004-6) and Juventus (2011-13) were chosen to examine. Whilst Juventus have not clinched the Serie A title yet, they are 11 points ahead of Napoli with 6 games to go and barring a calamitous breakdown they are set to defend the title they masterfully had won the previous season.
A number of criteria will be compared and contrasted within the study and this includes the club’s transfer spending vis a vis the second season both against itself and against that of the new champion (if there had been one), the sale of key players, changes in performances of key player/s, managerial changes, performances in the Champions League and whether it posed a distraction to the squad, and the squad’s ability to cope with more games, as well as the historical size of the club in its league among other things. We hope by doing the aforementioned, some light may be shed onto common themes.
Blackburn Rovers (Premier League Champions in 1994/95)
In the early 1990s, Jack Walker had begun bank-rolling the town-club towards success. Rovers arguably formed the prototype of rich owner done-good in modern football. However, just when things were supposed to be starting, the club failed to build on its success and was eventually relegated to the Championship within 5 years of having lifted the Premier League title. One of the first startling discoveries from the side that attempted to defend its 1994/95 title was the fact that the club barely spent in the summer leading to the new season. Only £2.7m was spent and even by amounts being thrown away back at the time this was meager, especially considering that Walker had given Kenny Dalglish over 3 times that figure the previous season. This led to Dalglish deciding to step upstairs in a director of football capacity. Rovers also sold one of the key members of the title-winning side in Mark Atkins and that coupled with injuries and poor form to Chris Sutton and Jason Wilcox hampered the side to a point of finishing outside the European places.
Deportivo La Coruña (La Liga Champions in 1999/00)
Little-known Deportivo capped off the most successful era of its history with a title during a period when it was a force to be reckoned with domestically and a giant banana skin in European football. An undeniable factor was their transfer expenditure, pushing Barcelona and Real Madrid to the limits at the time. One of the mistakes the title-defending champions made was selling 3 key members of the first team, most notably Flavio Conceicao. Interestingly, Deportivo may be the only club in our research that actually improved its league performances in the second season. Unfortunately, it was going head-to-head with the Galacticos of Real Madrid. The side from the capital had a net spending of almost 10 times what Deportivo spent that season.
AS Roma (Serie A Champions in 2000/01)
Francesco Totti’s Roma were a force to be reckoned with at the turn of the new century, highlighted by extravagant spending which led to the signing of players such as Gabriel Batistuta, Vincenzo Montella and later Antonio Cassano. All this happened under the stewardship of Fabio Capello. One of the first things that becomes apparent is that Roma significantly reduced transfer spending after winning the title and this happened at a time when Juventus increased spending to £156m in the summer transfer window. Roma only had a net spending of £23m that summer. Whilst Roma did sign Cassano and Capello’s favorite son Christian Panucci, they let go one of the cornerstones of the title-winning side in Cristiano Zanetti. A lack of goals also hit the side at the wrong time of the season and this is illustrated by the fact that Totti, Batistuta and Montella scored 20 less goals between them throughout the campaign compared to the previous season.
Borussia Dortmund (Bundesliga Champions in 2001/2)
German champions, Dortmund, were experiencing a golden era in their history. This included back to back titles in the previous decade and their one and only Champions League triumph too. Little did they know that they were at the climax of their success and were about to face grave financial difficulties which almost led to their extinction. Again, just like the sides we examined before them, they decided to significantly cut down on spending after winning the title, whilst Bayern Munich spent 3 times their outlay. Two highlights of the new season was the departure of key players Evanilson and Jurgen Kohler, as well as the drop in performances of Bundesliga top-scorer Marcio Amoroso who only contributed 6 goals in the new campaign.
Lille (Ligue 1 Champions in 2010/11)
The French League is an interesting one. Over the last 20 seasons only 1 side has managed to defend its title and that has been Lyon. In fact, they defended it successfully 6 times. Less money is spent in the French league compared to many of the other top leagues in Europe and more time is spent on developing players and this could be one of the reasons that there has been such a close and level playing field over the past 20 years, only rivaled by the Bundesliga in this respect. The only time that this trend was broken was with Lyon who began competing on a European level. Lille had not spent any money the season they won the league and went on to spend £7.5m net when they had to defend their title. However, they did lose 3 key members of that title winning campaign in Adil Rami, Emerson and Yohann Cabaye. Interestingly, the new champions, Montpellier, spent virtually nothing when they won the title away from Lille.
Montpellier (Ligue 1 Champions in 2011/12)
Montpellier made the grave error of selling their key player after they won the league title. Olivier Giroud left to join Arsenal and was replaced by 2 or 3 lessor known strikers who have failed to get on the scoring-sheet regularly this season. Nevertheless, Louis Nicollin did allow some money to be spent this past summer. However, after a poor start to the campaign and an early exit from the Champions League, Rene Girard also lost his captain, Yanga-Mbiwa in a mid-season transfer to Newcastle United. The majority of the key members of the squad continue to perform admirably but in a league where the margins are minimal losing players of the caliber of those Montpellier have lost is an insurmountable obstacle.
Manchester City (Premier League Champions in 2011/12)
The Abu Dhabi Sheikhs bought Manchester City with the vision of turning them into the biggest club in England and later Europe. Whilst City wrestled the title away from city-rivals Manchester United they have failed to put up a successful defence of their title and formed the inspiration behind this article. The first highlight of their failed defence is a 40% reduction in transfer spending. Secondly, Manchester United out-spent them this season. None of the sides we have examined in the study have managed to defend their title having spent less the following campaign unless it was still a higher amount than their closest rivals. Next, Roberto Mancini sold 3 key members of the title-winning side in Nigel de Jong, Adam Johnson and Mario Balotelli. The club’s best performers also failed to hit the heights of the previous campaign and this is mostly highlighted in the goals contribution of their top-scorers. An early exit in the Champions League forms another stereotypical characteristic of failure to defend the league title. In short, Manchester City form the text-book study of how not to defend your title.
Those Who Succeeded in Defending their Title
Chelsea (Defended their Premier League Title in 2005/6)
Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea had just set a Premier League record-high number of points in 2004/5 and lifted the double. The following campaign saw them successfully defend their title. One of the highlights of the success was the fact that they strengthened the starting line-up with the signing of Lyon’s Michael Essien. They also added Asier Del Horno and Shaun Wright-Phillips, with the former making the left back position his own. It also helped that Chelsea out-spent runners-up Manchester United and the performances of their key players somewhat improved (Drogba and Lampard both improved their goal contributions).
Dortmund (Defended their Bundesliga Title in 2011/12)
German champions Dortmund not only defended their title but also completed the double having trounced rivals Bayern Munich 5-2 in the Pokal final. Dortmund did increase its own spending even if Bayern Munich managed to out-spend them. Their transfer activity saw one Turkish-origin star replaced by another with Nuri Sahin departing to Spain and Ilkay Gundogan replacing him. On paper it seemed like Jurgen Klopp’s side did not get the better end of that deal but time has shown that to be false. Dortmund’s players continued to excel with Robert Lewandowski improving his finishing and other players contributing more goals than previously. Dortmund finished 6 points better off than the previous campaign.
Juventus (On Course to Defend Serie A Title in 2012/13)
Italian champions Juventus are back on top of the football pyramid domestically after a tumultuous few seasons, which included relegation due to match-fixing. Juve have virtually been alone in lavishly spending in recent seasons. This has helped them re-build their side. Whilst they decreased their transfer expenditure this season, it was still significantly higher than closest rivals Napoli. Antonio Conte also retained his key players and built on it by adding 3 key members to the squad in Giovinco, Asamoah and Isla. His side is on course to better its points haul of last season when it had gone unbeaten.
Looking at the above analysis, it is difficult to find a wholesome irrefutable rule of thumb in analyzing successes and failures when it comes to defending titles. Before attempting to do so, it is interesting to note that over the past 20 years the Premier League has seen 7 back to back champions (6 Manchester United, 1 Chelsea), the Bundesliga has seen 5 (3 Bayern Munich, 2 Dortmund), Ligue 1 has seen 6 but it all involved Lyon, La Liga has had 7 back to back champions (6 Barcelona, 1 Real Madrid), and Serie A is on course for its 9th this season (4 Inter, Juventus soon to be 3, with 2 for Milan). It must be added that Milan and Barcelona won their 1992/93 titles on the back of having won the previous season. What this suggests is that money plays a huge role in defining the legacy of the sides. Less dominance is found in the leagues where less money is spent.
One of the common characteristics of Chelsea, Dortmund and Juventus’ successful retention of titles is the fact that none weakened their sides during the summer after becoming champions. At the same time, Juventus and Chelsea both continued to invest in their squad and out-spent their rivals. Dortmund may have spent less than Bayern Munich but it must be noted that the figures being spent by either side would be dwarfed by some of the money being thrown around by lessor sides in some of Europe’s other leagues. So one could argue Bayern Munich’s expenditure in 2011/12 may have been higher than Dortmund’s but it was not at a level which could help shift the title back to Bavaria.
Another factor that must be highlighted is that all the sides that failed to defend their titles saw their top-scorer of the previous campaign fail to repeat his feats. Dortmund had Lewandowski score more goals than Lucas Barrios had the previous campaign. Juventus have three players 1 to 2 goals short of improving on last season’s top scorer with 6 games to go, whilst Chelsea saw both Frank Lampard and Didier Drogba improve on their tallies.
Amazingly, only Deportivo and Juventus made it into the Quarter Finals of the Champions League from the 10 cases studied. Lille and Montpellier were the only sides that increased spending after winning the title but failed to retain their crown. It must be added that Montpellier had a negative net expenditure though. Also, only one side improved its point tally and failed to retain the title and that was Deportivo.
Finally, it is clear from the analysis that only a few sides attempted to continue towards building a legacy after winning the title. Most of the clubs were happy to taste one-time glory and cash in on their success. This includes Blackburn and Montpellier. Others such as Dortmund, at the turn of the century, and Roma decided to keep the status quo whilst rivals continued to spend to make up for lost ground. Only a few sides attempted to create a legacy and these were the 3 sides that managed to defend their league titles and arguably Deportivo who just fell short. Lyon, who were not addressed in the analysis, also fit the bill. Therefore the motivation of the club owners is quite central to what happens next for the clubs in question.
The study above was undertaken with the goal of shedding light onto why retaining a league title proves to be difficult for most sides in Europe’s top leagues. Whilst there are certain intangible and unquantifiable elements at play such as the motivation and ambition levels of the players at hand, it is clear that lessons can be learned for sides that are in a process of winning a title after a long and dry spell. Certainly, the grounds exist for more conclusions to be drawn by those studying the data under the microscope.
Football is a game of two halves. This truism is one of the oldest cliches associated with the beautiful game. Some experts suggest how teams start every match sets the tempo for the rest of the game. Whilst that may be true, it may be interesting to look at how teams finish matches. When one thinks back of how important the final 10 minutes of any given match can be, then the most startling advert for the fact is undoubtedly the 1999 Champions League Final, when Manchester United scored twice in second half injury time to beat the Germans.
During analysis of the final few minutes of matches over a season, it’s fair to ask yourself whether you think results would mirror the strength of the teams without setting new patterns other than that which has been created over the previous 80 minutes of the match. What will it tell us about the mentality and personality of the sides involved? Is the destiny of games determined by the previous 80 minutes? These are some of the questions which we hope to answer by putting the magnifying glass over a few of Europe’s tightest leagues during the current 2012/13 season.
Firstly, the English Premier League will be analyzed, considering the tight race for Champions League spots as well as the scrap for relegation. Secondly, Serie A will be put under the eye of observation. Finally, the nPower Chanmpionship, the second tier of English football, traditionally seen as one of the most challenging leagues in all of European football will be analyzed largely due to its extremely tight proceedings this season. Currently, the team in 8th spot, Derby County, is still not safe from relegation, as its 5 points clear from 22nd spot, the final relegation spot, occupied by Huddersfield (only on goal difference being the worst of a set of 4 sides going up to 19th place Blackburn Rovers). On a side note, 54 points separate the top and bottom sides in the Premier League, with 47 separating those in Serie A and only 38 points keeping the respective sides in the nPower Championship apart.
The 2012/13 Premier League season has seen Manchester United wrestle back the title from city rivals Manchester City in what looks like a relatively early triumph. Critics argue that Roberto Mancini’s side failed to show the motivation and drive required to repeat their achievement of the previous season. This could also be the season which could see Premier League ever-presents Aston Villa suffer relegation. Continuing its seasonal pattern, Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal is fighting to win its own Champions League, the coveted 4th position.
How much would the league table change if the full-time whistle was blown in the 80th minute? Some of the findings are riveting to say the least. First of all, a total of 56 results have changed during the final 10 minutes of games (plus stoppage time) this season. That means 18.3% of games have been decided during those minutes. Other startling facts include West Brom being the only side to twice throw away victories and accept defeats during this period, Everton have turned defeat into victory and vice versa on one occasion each, Newcastle has seen results change in 10 of their 31 matches during the final 10 minutes, an astonishing 32% of their games, with Reading experiencing a similar turnaround. Man City have recovered the most points (12) during this period, whilst West Brom have lost the most (9). Also, Swansea are the only side that has not surrendered a single point during the final 10 minutes of matches and QPR the only side that has not recovered any point during the same period.
Considering that Man City has won 12 points (4 draws to wins, 1 loss to a win, 1 loss to a draw) how does the claim that Mancini’s side haven’t shown the same urgency they had last season fare? Clearly, they have exhibited a never say die attitude and good levels of concentration as they have only once lost points during the final stretch this season. Reading and Norwich are two other sides that had 180 degree turns on results gained, by converting lost games into victories once each. Spurs has lost a game that it had been winning after 80 minutes. If you’re looking to switch off your TV after 80 minutes without wanting to worry about missing anything then its likely that you can do so during a Sunderland – QPR game or a West Ham – QPR match-up. Only a total of 7 points has moved around during those between the sides involved throughout the whole season.
The table above shows if the final whistle was blown early, the biggest loser in the Premier League would be Manchester City. This may suggest that they have started slowly and sluggishly and a sense of urgency crept into their game as the match went on, especially in the second half of games. Ultimately, they would have found themselves in 5th place, fighting to get into the Champions League. At the other end of the table, Newcastle would have found themselves firmly in the relegation zone had it not been for their late game heroics. How long could they sustain such late surges before it catches up with them though? Their overall performances may yet prove to be costly at the end of the season. Other highlights are Spurs being in 2nd place, Arsenal being in 7th spot and unlikely to get into the Champions League whilst QPR only being 2 points off safety.
Juventus have not been as dominant as they were during their unbeaten title victory in the 2011/12 season. Some analysts have said that this was Napoli’s season to win but they have thrown it away having failed to capitalize on the leader’s blunders. In terms of the overall scope of the league, a total of 51 results changed during the final 10 minutes of matches. That translates to 17% of matches being decided during the said period, a slightly lesser ratio than in the Premier League, and probably indicative of the nature of Serie A.
Some of the findings from Serie A include the fact that Juventus have not surrendered a single point during the final stretch of matches and have won back the most points (12). Napoli have seen 9 results change during the final 10 minutes, the most in the whole league, and this includes converting a defeat into victory as well as seeing a win turn into a loss. Only two other sides have experienced such ecstasy (Bologna) and despair (Torino) this season and both in games against Napoli. The biggest losers of the final few minutes of games have been Palermo. They have surrendered 12 points and have only taken 1 point off their opponents during the closing stages of games.
If you’re looking to switch off your TV after 80 minutes then you’d be safest doing so during a Sampdoria – Siena match-up. Compared to the Premier League, only two matches saw 180 degree result turns during the final 10 minutes, whereas in the Premier League four matches saw similar turnarounds.
What we learn from the above table is that Napoli would currently be leading the Serie A title race despite having a mixed record during the final 10 minutes of games. This is largely because their rivals Juventus have amassed 5 wins (converted from draws) during the final few minutes of games. Milan and Chievo are two other sides that have not relinquished any points during the final few minutes of games. Palermo, whose fortunes would be much the richer if officials blew the whistle at the end of 80 minutes, would have been 5 points above the relegation zone, virtually safe by now, instead of being firm candidates to go down to Serie B. Milan and Fiorentina would be having a much closer race for the final Champions League spot too, and Catania would be another “winner” as they would be on the verge of a European spot.
The Championship might prove to be the most exciting league in Europe if it comes down to how matches finish. A total of 99 results changed during the final 10 minutes of games. That is just over a staggering 25% of all games till date. Blackpool have been the undoubted kings of finishing off games strongly. They have “won” 15 points whilst only giving up 3 points during the final few minutes of matches. Cardiff City is another side that finishes games strongly, winning 4 games from drawing positions and drawing 2 games from losing positions. They have not given up points during the same period. Charlton’S games have the quietest finish when it comes to impacting the result. Only twice have they seen results change and both times it has been to their detriment. Leeds United have been one of the undoubted big losers when it comes to the analysis. Ten of their games have changed results during the final 10 minutes and only once has it been to their benefit. Crystal Palace, Blackpool, Ipswich and Bolton have seen 12 results each change during the period in question. That is just under 1 in 3 matches. At the same time, a total of 5 matches have seen 180 degree turnarounds for the sides involved (losses to wins).
What quickly transpires from looking at the table is that if the final few minutes of matches were not factored in, the whole complexion of the league would change. Firstly, four points would separate the top 4 with Watford benefiting most as they would sit at the top of the pile. Gianfranco Zola’s side have seen 18 points thrown around during the final few minutes of games and that is a league high. They would gain 5 points through the process. Leeds may have been the big losers when it comes to closing out games but that translates to benefiting from the projected league table as they would break into the play-off positions. Crystal Palace have lost the most points during the final few minutes, and despite having won quite a few themselves, they would jump into the 2nd automatic promotion spot.
What is even more interesting is the bottom of the table shake-up. Blackpool nosedive into 23rd position and would likely be relegated had it not been for their closing out of matches. Interestingly, Ian Holloway has had a stake in two of the most “active” sides in the division during the analysis period as the Tangerines are his former side, and Palace his current one. Make of that what you will. Peterbrough would be another beneficiary of the projection as they would jump to 9 points above the relegation zone. Blackburn, Ipswich and Wolves would also look to be quite safe.
Whilst the above analysis proves interesting reading, what conclusions can we draw? Firstly, its clear that the Championship is the most exciting league between the 3 in question when it comes to how important the final 10 minutes of games are. Secondly, there is no clear pattern in terms of the final 10 minutes of games correlating with the previous 80 minutes of the respective games. Whilst teams like Manchester City, Manchester United, Juventus and Cardiff close out games strongly especially when they need a result, other sides near the top of the table have mixed results. Spurs, Chelsea and Everton are 3 of the top 6 in the Premier League but they have lost more points than gained during the period in question. However, in Italy, the current positions of the side have a greater influence in how they finish games with Fiorentina being the only side, which has lost more points than won, in the top 7 of Serie A. In the Championship, perhaps due to the openness and end-to-end nature of the British game, there is a mixed bag again with 2 of the top 4 having lost more points than won.
Then there are a few anomalies to look at. This includes Newcastle, Blackpool and Palermo. The Geordies are currently surviving due to their last few minute heroics having won 6 extra points (net). Blackpool are currently 3 points off the relegation zone in the Championship but this is only because of the extraordinary 15 points that they have won during that period. They have only lost 3 points too. Effectively their numbers along with those of Juventus are the best in our study. What does that tell us about Blackpool? Whilst it needs further analysis of the games, one possible scenario sees teams sitting back deeper against what they perceive to be a bottom of the table side whilst the gung-ho nature of the Tangerines, born out of Ian Holloway’s image creates enough chances to convert. Teams like Crystal Palace, Leeds and Watford do not seem to have the tactical aptitude to close out games. Palace and Watford are both known to play expansive football and the high-tempo could prove to be costly towards the end of games. On the other side of the coin, Italian Serie A strugglers Palermo need to close up shop much better and working on the players fitness could be an aspect that may require further attention. The fruits of this research lay the groundwork which could be instrumental for the sides involved in gaining extra points in the future, either by working at closing out games better or taking advantage of their opponents inability to do the same.
Since Indian poultry-farmers Venkys bought Blackburn Rovers in November 2010, the club and its supporters have been through a roller-coaster ride. Its landscape is almost unrecognizable from that of which was inherited by the owners. This does not ring any truer than towards the playing squad. Venkys have received heavy criticism for the way they’ve managed or more accurately mis-managed the running of the club including their almost eternal backing of then-manager Steve Kean. They have also been criticized for the caliber of players brought into the club as well as the huge turn-over of players moving out during the same period.
This was then… (Playing Squad on day Venkys purchased the club)
You might have forgotten some of the players who were associated with the club at the time Venkys purchased it. It does seem a lifetime ago. Only 7 players from the first team playing squad from November 2010 are still with the club today. However, only Martin Olsson and Grant Hanley can consider themselves regular starters in the current set-up. The squad at that time was short on players in the wide areas whilst it seemed well stocked in most other positions especially at center back. It was also arguably lacking a quality finisher who could regularly score goals at any level as well as a fit midfield enforcer who could provide a good foil for Steven N’Zonzi. The squad considered Christopher Samba, Phil Jones, Martin Olsson, N’Zonzi, Junior Hoilett, and Niko Kalinic as among its sell-able assets.
This is now… (Playing Squad on February 8, 2013)
The current squad is much thinner at center back and still lacks a strong central midfield partnership. However, what it has gained is a top quality finisher in Jordan Rhodes. The make-up of the squad can be described as hard-working, robust and solid at best. Whilst players in the initial squad moved on for 8 digit fees in a couple of the cases, it is hard to see anyone being sold for anything near that fee, with the exception of Jordan Rhodes who, at the very least, should fetch the same fee he joined the club under. Other than Rhodes, and possibly Scott Dann, largely due to him being English, it is difficult to see anyone fetching more than £5 million from the current squad. Martin Olsson, who was once rated in the £6m-£7m bracket could now cost buyers a more realistic £4m fee at the end of the season.
Who They Bought
By December 2011, Rovers were at the crossroads where the upcoming transfer window, at the time, would have played a crucial role in the club staying up or getting relegated. Most of the transfers under Venkys had not panned out well until that period and the pressure was on to get it right that time around. However, as history is testament, Venkys took the cautious route and did not undertake the sort of spending that they would commission in the next transfer window. They would also let go of both Christopher Samba and a fully fit Ryan Nelsen.
In the overall scheme of things, the owners have overseen the acquisition of 25 players up till and including the January 2013 transfer window. They have “spent” over £34 million on those transfers, and this does not include an exorbitant amount on agent fees, namely during the first two transfer windows of their tenure. In some cases, the agent fees dwarfed the transfer fee in question. Dann and Rhodes were the most expensive signings on the list with nine of the signings being made on free transfers.
Looking at the list above, it is difficult to judge how many of those transfers have turned out to be a success. If the assessment had to be done today then other than Yakubu and Rhodes, it is difficult to call any other transfer a success. Ruben Rochina may prove to be a success down the line or at the very least may be sold for more money than he joined the club under the owners, which would make it a first for Venkys. Scott Dann has improved this season but Rovers are mid-table in the Championship and its difficult to suggest that his performances will ever attract the sort of interest that he had been allegedly receiving for a period of his career at Birmingham. Back to back relegation campaigns do not read well on the center back’s CV.
Interestingly, 10 of the players that they had brought into the club are no longer with with it today. That is a staggering 40% of the transfers.
Almost the same number of players have left the club under Venkys reign as had joined them. If one had to form two starting line-ups out of the two lists and pit them against each other it would see the likes of Bunn, Salgado, Samba, Nelsen, Emerton – Diouf, Jones, N’Zonzi, Hoilett – Yakubu, Kalinic representing the players who were sold, take on a team including Bruno Ribeiro, Dann, Nuno Henrique, Orr – Formica, Murphy, Etuhu, Markus Olsson – Rochina, and Rhodes. Venkys have yet to sign a goalkeeper on a permanent contract, with Pole Sandomiercki having joined the club on loan in the summer of 2012.
Needless to say the quality present in the list of exodus is clear for all to see. A number of the players formed the backbones of Rovers sides over the previous 4-5 seasons prior to Venkys ownership.
The first striking item off the list is the fact that despite statements stating Venkys have spent money and have shown their commitment to the cause in recent times, they have made more money from transfers than they have spent (not including agent fees, wages and compensation agreements to release players). A second striking element is the fact that some of the players that had been present in the list of transfers into the club also feature here. Four players have been bought and sold by Venkys during their tenure and all for a loss (not including Myles Anderson who joined and left on free transfers). Radosav Petrovic, Simon Vukcevic and Yakubu joined the club for a combined fee of at least £5.5m but left the club for a fee thought to be £1.5m in total as well as a compensation package to get one of them off the club’s payroll. Nothing illustrates failure in transfer dealings more than the fact that Rovers, under Venkys, have gotten rid of many of the same players they have brought in. The list does not even include players who have been sent out on loan. This brings us to the next section of the analysis.
Here Today, Gone Tomorrow
Throughout the article it has become apparent that Venkys have admitted failure in a number of their transfer dealings through the exit of the same players virtually as soon as they’d joined the club. A total of 12 out of the 25 players that they signed have left the club either on loan or a full transfer. Let’s not forget that two of the 25 players only joined the club during the last two weeks, and this effectively means that more than half of the players brought into the club have gone on to leave the club in the period in question.
The list below provides some riveting realities.
The players at the top of the table have survived – till date – the revolving doors at Ewood Park. From the rest, Ruben Rochina’s stay was the longest. He completed exactly 2 years as a Rovers player before being shipped out, surprisingly, to Real Zaragoza. Argentine Mauro Formica was 8 days short of his two year anniversary as well. Diogo Rosado only remained for 153 days before being given away on loan to Benfica’s B side for the rest of the season. He appeared twice in Rovers colors in the Championship. That’s twice as much as Jordan Slew or Paulo Jorge have ever put on the shirt. Myles Anderson remained at the club for 411 consecutive days without making a single appearance before being shipped out on loan to Aldershot. Bruno Ribeiro appeared once almost every 100 days before leaving on loan back to Brazil. The numbers prove hard to take for Rovers faithful.
It is difficult for any un-biased person to assess the facts presented above and draw any other conclusion than that Venkys transfer policy has been a complete and utter failure. As owners, you’d be assessed on your general running of club, choice of managers, patience, transfer policy as well as success during your tenure. This article wanted to assess one cornerstone of the above in isolation of the others. Theoretically, what would make for a successful transfer policy?
Firstly, one would assess the quality of the squad at a said time and compare it to the one that exists after a set period. In the case of Venkys, the squad looks weaker, on paper, than it was at the time they took over. The balance of the squad is different with some gaps filled whilst others expanded compared to the squad they inherited. The Jordan Rhodes transfer proves to be the one undoubted masterstroke of their reign, even though he joined for a bloated fee of £8 million. The fact that he is young, and British coupled with the transfer fees being paid for British players in the current era (see Steven Fletcher as an example) mean that barring a horrendous injury or a complete 180 degree turn-around in his fortunes on the pitch, Rhodes will leave Rovers for at least the same fee he joined the club under.
Secondly, one would analyze the assets or potential assets a club brings in on the playing front. Venkys brought in a number of young players with a view towards building a side for the future and selling its components on for a profit, or at least that’s what the owners publicly said at the time in late-2010. However, a number of those same players have already moved on and not after having their careers flourish at Rovers. In fact, one could argue that for many of those young hopefuls their careers stalled at Rovers, either through not performing at an adequate level or by the fact that they were not given enough opportunities or the environment to build upon.
Thirdly, one would assess the value of the squad. Looking at the current squad, it is difficult to see how more than £15m would be raised through the sale of the whole first team squad not including Rhodes. Phil Jones was sold for more than that figure. That puts things into perspective.
In a nutshell, it is difficult to find any case for optimism for the owners overall transfer policy. It is interesting that over the four transfer windows that they have been in charge of, they’ve had a number of different people pulling the strings on the ins and outs at the club but the overall results have all been less than acceptable. If their choice of managers has proven to provide the catalyst for Rovers slide towards mid-table obscurity in the Championship, then their transfer policy has provided the long-term back-drop in devaluing and weakening the squad to the point that it arguably belongs where it currently is.
Many analysts considered Rovers squad to be the best in the Championship before a ball was kicked in the summer of 2012. The players undoubtedly under-performed but it still did not change that fact. However, today, it is difficult to hold that point of view any longer. Rovers current squad does not look like anything more than just another average Championship squad that is being carried by the goals of one exceptional player in Jordan Rhodes. If those goals somehow push Rovers back into the Premier League again by the end of May, then Venkys may get another chance to remedy their transfer policy. But if history is a lesson, then one thing is for sure and that is Venkys do not learn from their mistakes as much or as quickly as it is needed in the business of football.
Barcelona’s Lionel Messi continues to break goal-scoring records by the match. His performances have meant that soon enough there will only be his own records to better rather than that of his predecessors. If it wasn’t for the Argentine, Cristiano Ronaldo’s scoring heroics would have had a more long-term place in the record books. At the same time, both Rademel Falcao and Robin van Persie are virtually scoring at a rate of 2 goals every 3 games. There had been a time when scoring 1 goal every 2 games was considered the target for top strikers all over Europe. However, during the past two seasons, the four aforementioned individuals have really raised the bar when it comes to goal scoring. As silly as this may sound, is that group of four simply the most clinical finishers in football? One would be hard-pressed to bite his lip and take a step back and analyze things closely before answering that.
Whilst goals are the single most important measure of a striker’s ability, is it really fair to compare players playing at different clubs, receiving different levels of service and taking a varying amount of shots on goal? In order to fairly assess a striker’s “deadliness” in front of goal, we will take into account two factors. Firstly, we will assess how often the said player has shots on target in respect to the total number of shots he takes. This will reflect their accuracy. Subsequently, we will assess the ratio with which the said player converts the shots on target into goals. Combining the two variables and weighing them according to their importance will provide us with a figure which would reflect their conversion in front of goal. In order retain a level of integrity we will compare strikers across the top four rated leagues in Europe and examine statistics from the 2011/12 season as well as the on-going 2012/13 campaign. We will only consider players who have scored a minimum of 15 league goals during the period in question.
Bear in mind that assessing the difficulty of shooting opportunities no doubt plays a role but due to the intricacy involved and the lack of available data in the public domain, it has not been considered within the methodology of this study. Similarly, one school of thought may suggest that taking into account the amount of time a player’s team is in the opposition’s final third should play an indirect role at the very least. If a player’s side is taking the game to the opposition consistently then the player would be more prepped for taking his chances. However, if the team sits back and hits on the counter then the player’s anticipation and concentration levels must be at a higher than usual level and must be taken into account. This resembles the argument that goalkeeper’s, playing at top clubs, who face one or two opportunities a game must sometimes be heralded as even “better” than a keeper in the thick of the action, due to their higher concentration and motivation levels. But as there is no general consensus on agreeing upon or quantifying this element, it also has been left out, despite having been applied during the research stage of the study. Furthermore, failing to score a certain number of goals at this stage of the current season would count against the culprit, whilst hitting a certain number of shots on target would not go un-noticed.
Ultimately one always wonders how a player would fare had he been receiving the sort of service he would be getting at “insert top of the table club”. The goal of this exercise is to attempt to create a more level playing field when it comes to comparing the finishing ability of players wherever they may be playing.
The Bundesliga has emerged as one of the most exciting leagues in Europe. An excellent ownership structure, financially sound clubs, rising attendances, consistent success on the pitch as illustrated through its gaining of an additional Champions League spot and some of the best young players in all of Europe are just some of the reasons why. Add to that Pep Guardiola’s decision to take over Bayern Munich next season and its easy to see why the spotlight is firmly on the league.
Mario Gomez fulfilled the criteria of the research the best and found himself at the top of the list of clinical finishers in the league over the past 18 months, although his lack of game time this season did count against him on the overall scale of things. In fact, Gomez had the best shots on target ratio between all the players analyzed in all 4 leagues, keeping 59% of his shots on target. His conversion ratio was also impressive, scoring 47% of the time once he had kept the shot on target. Klaas-Jan Huntelaar came second in the Bundesliga, keeping 50% of his shots on target, whilst going on to convert 49% of those chances into goals. However, he has under-performed this season and this counted against him in the final standings. Vedad Ibisevic rounded up the top 3, with Leverkusen’s consistent striker Stefan Keissling coming a close fourth and Robert Lewandowski fifth in the rankings. If the study was simply based upon goals scored then Huntelaar would have finished first, with Lewandowski, and Gomez in second and third place.
In Italy, the man that stood out was Inter Milan’s Argentine striker Diego Milito. He has found a new lease of life during the past 18 months and converted an outstanding 56% of his shots on target into goals. In simple terms, as long as Milito keeps the shot on target then more likely than not he will score. He is 1 of only 2 players in Europe to have that sort of record. Edinson Cavani came in second overall with 46% of his shots on target and 48% of those shots on target converted. Miroslav Klose finished third, converting 49% of his shots on target into goals. Udinese stalwart, Antonio “Toto” Di Natale suprisingly finished a lowly seventh, despite scoring 37 goals during the past 18 months. This was largely due to the fact that he converts a lowly 34% of his on-target shots into goals.
In England, only three of the final nominees break the 50% barrier when it comes to keeping shots on target and they are led by a Manchester United goal-scoring hero. Surprisingly, it is not the United striker you are thinking about. It isn’t even the second United striker that you’re thinking of. It’s Mexican super-sub Javier Hernandez. Chicharito keeps 52% of his shots on target and subsequently goes on to convert 46% of them. Chelsea’s Frank Lampard is the most impressive midfielder in between all the players assessed within any of the leagues. He converts 49% of the chances that he has kept on target. Sunderland’s Steven Fletcher and Swansea’s Spanish talisman Michu fall into the next slots just ahead of Manchester City’s Edin Dzeko who edges in ahead of van Persie, largely due to the fact that he converts a slightly higher percentage of his shots on target into goals. You might be surprised that players like Chelsea’s newly signed Senegalese striker, Dembe Ba, do not possess as good a conversion rate as you would have thought. Ba only converts 35% of his shots on target into goals, a similar figure to England’s Wayne Rooney, although that is still ahead of Fernando Torres who converts only 28% of his shots on target. The Spaniard has the lowest conversion rate between all the players assessed and that reflects some of his tame finishing even when the shots are on target and “test” the opposition goalkeeper.
Liverpool’s Luis Suarez fares even worse than Torres on the overall scheme of things as he only keeps 36% of his shots on target, going on to convert 31% of those into goals. Other players who don’t make the list partly because they failed to hit 15 goals during the period include two English strikers, Danny Welbeck and Daniel Sturridge. Welbeck keeps 41% of his shots on target but only converts 23% of those into goals. Sturridge, who considers himself a center forward keeps 36% of his shots on target and goes on to convert 34% of those opportunities into actual goals.
Last but not least, Spain’s La Liga is home to Europe’s most clinical striker and needless to say he’s Argentine. Chances are 95% of you just named the wrong player. Lionel Messi only comes in second in La Liga’s rankings well behind his compatriot Gonzalo Higuain. Real Madrid’s Higuain is one of only two players in all of Europe who convert into goals more than 50% of the shots they had kept on target. The other, of course, was listed earlier and was Inter’s Diego Milito. Higuain betters Milito’s conversion rate as he scores an incredible 59% of shots that have been kept on target. Lionel Messi comes in second, keeping 56% of his shots on target. What makes that rate even more impressive is the fact that he’s taken over 300 shots in compiling that percentage. His conversion ratio stands at 46% which is still among the highest in Europe, and considering the range of shots he takes might be a little undervalued. Roberto Soldado and Falcao follow in the next two spots. Both have proven to be consistent goal scorers in recent years wherever they have played. Soldado converts 47% of his shots on target into goals, a rate better than four-time Ballon D’Or winner Messi. Cristiano Ronaldo does feature on the list however his numbers are not as impressive as one may have thought. He keeps 44% of his shots on target, no doubt hindered by the fact that he takes so many long range shots. He goes on to convert 35% of his shots on target into goals, possibly slightly hindered by the previous fact again. In terms of midfielders, Barcelona’s Cesc Fabregas has impressive numbers. He keeps 56% of his shots on target, and goes on to convert 38% of them into goals.
Now comes the interesting part where all the numbers are crunched into the formula in order to produce the results. As stated earlier, each factor is giving a weighing variable, and there are points to be gained and lost for the number of shots taken as well as failure to hit certain targets in the current season in order to provide as much balance as possible.
The Top 35
As evident above, Gonzalo Higuain is the undisputed king when it comes to being clinical, finishing on 90 points (from 100). What is telling is that 3 of the top 4 are Argentines, firmly giving the national side a potency that makes them among the favorites to lift the upcoming World Cup in Brazil next year. Mario Gomez (79 points) splits Milito (82) and Messi (78). Although it must be said as the season goes on if Gomez fails to recover from injury he will undoubtedly lose his spot to Messi, even if the Argentine continues at exactly the same ratio as he’s performing.
Whilst the analysis takes into account the factors illustrated above, it has laid the groundwork for more intense research in the future. It is recommended to weigh the difficulty of the type of shots each player has taken.
A special thanks to Follow @liaBIGPUNov for his mathematical and football insight.
The UEFA Champions League remains club football’s most sought after trophy for a multitude of reasons. Due to its ever growing status in the post-Bosman world of football, not least of which is due to the financial prizes on offer, simply qualifying for the competition is considered more important than winning a domestic cup or even the Europa League. Just ask Arsene Wenger. The Arsenal manager has gone on record to state “I say that because if you want to attract the best players, they don’t ask if you won the League Cup, they ask if you play in the Champions League.” Wenger is not in the minority with that viewpoint. Teams like Liverpool and Atletico Madrid face uphill struggles to retain stalwarts such as Luis Suarez and Falcao if they are not able to offer them Champions League football imminently. But what is the role of the Europa League in providing a balance to the dilemma? It is after all UEFA’s “second” big competition.
Gone are the days of the prestige of playing in and winning the UEFA Cup and Cup Winner’s Cup. Big teams such as Barcelona, Juventus, Arsenal, Paris Saint-Germain, Chelsea and Lazio were among the winners of those competitions during their final years before a re-structuring was undertaken by Europe’s governing body. In fact, UEFA has played a central role in the demise of Europe’s second competition through neglecting it whilst the Champion’s League’s grew larger and more influential in world football. Their high-profile public re-branding of the Europa League in 2009 has done little to change the perception or reality of the situation. At the time, UEFA President Michel Platini stated “I am convinced the new format will give the UEFA Europa League a successful new impetus…these changes will improve this historic competition, which is very important for UEFA and for European football as it gives more fans, players and clubs the thrill of European club football”
Firstly, the fact that less and less “champions” take part in the Champions League has simply depleted the prestige of the Europa League. It has been firmly given a second-tier look and feel, and that sense has never been reversed by the entry of the third-placed group stage “lucky losers” from the Champions League at the latter stages of the Europa League because those sides only see the tournament as a distraction to their quest of winning the league title or qualifying for next season’s Champions League through their domestic league. Secondly, UEFA provided the nail in the tournament’s coffin by confirming its position as a second-tier competition through the meager prize money on offer. For instance, winning a group stage match nets a team €140,000 in the Europa League whilst €800,000 in the Champions League. For a team in the Europa League to get that sort of prize money they would need to qualify for the semi-finals of the tournament. On the flip-side, a team that qualifies for the semi-finals of the Champions League gains €4,200,000. The winners of the Champions League and Europa League attain €9 million and €3 million respectively as further bonuses. In short, if a team wins every watch on its way to winning the tournaments, starting from the group stages, they would gain €31.5 million and €6.44 million respectively in the Champions League and Europa League. This is even before the huge impact of television money is taken into account as that further widens the financial gulf between the two competitions.
Nevertheless, UEFA still encourages managers to talk up the Europa League. In October 2012, it was reported that a sheet was distributed to managers of sides in the tournament. The sheet, headlined “Discover the Drama”, included terms such as “prestigious” and “rich in heritage” and highlighted that the dramatic nature of the matches should be talked up during press conferences and interviews. It is a bit hypocritical, not to mention naive, to expect supporters, teams, players, sponsors, and the media to buy into a manufactured and commercial measure. Instead of tackling the issue at hand, UEFA has taken a fruitless approach that has further brought it ridicule as well as further undermined the value of the Europa League. Simply put, it is all talk and little substance. This brings us to the ultimate question. What can UEFA do to salvage the reputation and importance of the competition?
On one hand, increasing the financial winnings that are to be gained by clubs could prove to have a positive impact. If, as expected, “big” clubs, from the big leagues then begin taking the competition a little more seriously, then supporters would do so, as a consequence, especially in terms of TV audiences, and sponsors would begin to pool more money towards the tournament. However, this could prove financially costly for UEFA and it would take a considerable increase in prize money, possibly doubling it at the very least, to have an impact. However, the prize money would still fall quite short of what is on offer in the Champions League. At the same time, it does not fix one of the biggest weaknesses of the competition in that almost all the big clubs are already present in the Champions League. Unlike the past when winning the domestic cup was seen as far more prestigious due to the passage towards the Cup Winner’s Cup, today, it has also taken a back-seat to the domestic league’s passage towards the Champions League. In many cases, the winner of the domestic cup would already be present in the Champions League so the runners-up or next best-placed domestic league position not in European competition qualifies to the Europa League. All lit roads lead to the Champions League, whilst a dead end leads one towards the Europa League. It has firmly become the “black sheep” of European football.
On the other hand, if one takes a closer look at Arsene Wenger’s comments, then a viable solution could be found in raising the profile of the Europa League. It is clear that everyone wants to participate in the Champions League, and the Europa League is little consolation to clubs that miss out on that privilege. But what if the relationship between the two competitions was further intertwined? We already have clubs who drop down from the Champions League to the Europa League mid-competition, so why can’t the reverse journey be possible? The proposal is not as radical as it sounds.
If UEFA begins offering the winner of the Europa League a spot in the following season’s Champions League it would almost certainly solve the problem permanently. It would offer clubs the chance to qualify for the Champions League following what could be as little as a 15-match campaign, less than half the matches it would take through most domestic leagues in Europe. In fact, in a knock-out competition most clubs would have more of a chance for success than a dragged-out 38 match league campaign. English teams like Everton, Liverpool and Spurs would find it more “attractive” competing with some of the sides present in the Europa League than their counterparts such as Manchester United, Manchester City, Arsenal and Chelsea for a spot through the league. Teams that get knocked out of the Champions League at the group stage may be suffering in terms of their domestic league as a consequence of their squad being stretched, as Spurs found out a couple of years ago, but re-entry into the Europa League would offer then a few matches to redeem themselves and give themselves a second shot at the Champions League the following season. In fact, one can argue that the winner of the Europa League has more of a claim to taking part in the Champions League than a 4th place side of a domestic league.
Having expanded the Champions League in recent seasons, it is unlikely that UEFA would have practical problems in offering a spot in the Champions League to the winners of its second-tier competition. In fact, to go further in gaining national association support for the idea, the Europa League winner’s “spot” could have special dispensation which does not endanger the final domestic league qualifier to the Champions League due to the fact that the Europa League winner finished outside those spots. So, in theory, England could have 5 spots one season or Italy could regain a 4th spot quicker than they would have expected. The proposal is certainly something that UEFA could look into if it has serious intentions in regaining the lost prestige of the Europa League. Whether it does so or not is a whole different debate. But there are no excuses left for UEFA and the clock is ticking for the Europa League.