Jose Mourinho is known for stirring the pot during interviews and press conferences. He has gone on record on numerous occasions to state that the Premier League is the toughest league in Europe. His argument is that there are more teams that compete to win the title than in the other major leagues. He has also emphasized that on any given day any side from the bottom of the league can beat one from the top and that is what makes the league the most exciting. In fact, that’s the theme of major marketing used by most of the major television networks that broadcast Premier League football. Mourinho’s statements seemed convenient last season during a difficult period when Chelsea lost to Aston Villa, Crystal Palace and Sunderland, whilst being held to a draw against Norwich. His assertions are usually acknowledged as fact by the mainstream press and audience and never really put under the microscope for analysis.
We will undertake analysis, which will compare how the top 5 sides in the Premier League, Bundesliga and La Liga, arguably the 3 strongest leagues in Europe today, have fared against the bottom 5 in their respective leagues since the 2012/13 season. We will then go on to analyze the race for the Champions League in the respective leagues and the gap in points between the title winners and the final Champions League qualifier (4th placed side), during the past 5 seasons. We will also analyze the number of different sides that have won the aforementioned leagues and qualified for the Champions League over the last decade. This would illustrate how open the race for the “top 4” has been in reality. Finally, we will analyze the points per game averages over final league position for the 2013/14 season in all three leagues. Through this four-pronged exercise we will aim to either solidify Mourinho’s claims or debunk the theory that had been put forward. Let’s not forget that we are not attempting to prove which league is the “strongest” but rather the toughest for the bigger sides, because the former does not directly reflect the league’s standing but rather the strength of individual sides who may have extraordinary prowess above the league capability.
The Top 5 vs The Bottom 5
Looking at the Premier League’s top five’s results against their counterparts from the bottom of the table, one will notice that since the 2012/13 campaign the win percentage for the top 5 has dropped from 78% to 74% and currently stands at 72.5% for the current campaign. Matches against the bottom 5 are arguably becoming a little bit tougher for the top sides if the figures above are an indication. However, it is important to note that in terms of getting results (wins or draws) the ratio has improved from 90% in the 2012/13 campaign, to 96% the next season and currently stands at 94% (illustrating that the top 5 lose only 6% of their matches against the bottom 5). Interestingly, the Champions League sides (top 4) have an even more impressive win percentage since 2012/13 (77%), not losing in 93.4% of their matches against the bottom 5.
Whilst La Liga’s top sides have a significant winning record against the bottom sides, the slope is quite different to that of the PL. In 2012/13, they had a 70% winning percentage and followed this up with 76% in the subsequent season. During the on-going campaign this winning percentage currently stands at a staggering 87%. Games against the bottom 5 are moving more and more in the direction of the top 5. In terms of not losing, the top 5 stayed unbeaten in 96% of their games in 2012/13, 94% in 2013/14 and currently hold a 97% non-losing percentage against the bottom 5. The Champions League sides hold a 78% winning percentage against the bottom 5, not losing 95% of their matches against them.
In the Bundesliga, during the 2012/13 season, the top 5 had a 78% winning percentage, and followed that up with a 70% winning percentage in the 2013/14 season. In the ongoing campaign, the winning percentage stands at 72.4%. This illustrates that the bottom sides are proving to be more formidable opponents for the top 5 than they were a few seasons ago. In terms of not losing against the bottom 5 then the percentages stood at 90% in 2012/13, 88% in 2013/14 and 86% during the current campaign. The Bundesliga proves to be the only league where the bottom 5 get results against the top 5 on more than 10% of the times they face each other. Overall the top 5 “only” have an 89% unbeaten record against the bottom 5 (losing 11% of their match-ups).
The Top 2 vs Bottom 5 Sides in All 3 Leagues
It is widely accepted that there have arguably been at least 2 major challengers for the title during the last 3 campaigns within the leagues in question. This may have changed slightly in the Bundesliga over the last few months as Dortmund have fallen by the wayside. In La Liga, Real Madrid and Barcelona had dominated until Atletico won the title last season. Currently, the three sides have won all 18 matches against the bottom 5 this season and have created a pyramid structure at the top of the table. In the Premier League, Chelsea and Manchester City have been the two major challengers over the last few seasons although Manchester United did win the title in 2012/13. The records in question are exhibited below.
The Race for the Champions League
Looking at the numbers above it is clear that one side has largely dominated each of the three major leagues over the past decade. A form of cartel has formed at the top of the leagues and in the cases of the Premier League and La Liga only 3 sides have won the trophy during the period in question. Whilst the Bundesliga was a little bit more inviting at the top of the pyramid, it has begun to solidify only two viable candidates for the title over the last few years too.
However, more interestingly, the race for Champions League spots is worth inspecting. In that case, the Premier League is the most “closed” of the leagues with only 7 different sides qualifying for Europe’s elite competition during the past 10 years. The Bundesliga has had 8 different sides qualify and that’s despite having only 3 spots a season until the 2011/12 season. La Liga remains the most open in terms of Champions League qualification as illustrated by the fact that 12 different sides have qualified for the tournament despite the undoubted dominance of two clubs at the top of the table. One must remember that TV and sponsorship packages are relatively balanced in Spain as long as one ignores the big two. In Germany, there’s also a more conservative financial spread between clubs. In the Premier League, however, there’s, arguably, a wider gap between 5-6 clubs and the rest of the league making it extremely difficult to break into the top 4.
Analyzing the Points Gap in CL Race
During the past 5 seasons, the gap between the Bundesliga winners and the lowest placed Champions League qualifier has been getting wider. However, it is also clear that the race for the final Champions League spot has largely been open and headed to the last couple of games of the season at the very least. This season, Augsburg, for instance, is aspiring to qualify for the CL. Wolfsburg will also be looking to return to the competition after a few years absence. Dortmund finds itself languishing well outside the qualification spots and is almost certainly going to miss out on next season’s edition unless it wins the trophy in May.
The data on La Liga confirms that Barcelona and Real Madrid were in a league of their own over recent years until Atletico Madrid broke their stranglehold. Last season’s race was the closest in terms of 1st – 4th spot that it has been in a long time, no doubt aided by Atletico’s introduction into the equation.
The Premier League provides interesting figures for analysis. It is probably the closest in terms of a group of 4 or 5 or so sides compared to the other leagues. In fact, only 7 points separated the top 4 last season. This is a record low and even betters the Bundesliga’s 9 points for 3 three sides during the 2009/10 season. Furthermore, one deduces that in the Premier League, the dominance is more in terms of Champions League than just the title, unlike the other leagues. A pack of sides have cemented their positions towards the top of the table. Even if there is a hierarchy within the sides in question, there is certainly an even wider gap with the rest of the league, who arguably have the priority of staving off relegation.
Points Per Game / Final League Positions for the 2013/14 Season
Some of the observations that are made above include a significant “break” occurring in the Premier League after 7th position. This is signified by a larger than 10% distance between any two adjacent sides in terms of points per game. This cements the thesis that the Premier League is divided into two sub-leagues, one that runs down to 7th spot and the rest which goes down from 8th all the way to the bottom spot.
Secondly, La Liga has the least sides averaging less than 1 point per game (2). The Premier League had 5 sides under the average whilst the Bundesliga had 4. Only two sides succeeded in crossing 2 PPG in the Bundesliga but it has the highest number of sides averaging over 1.5 PPG (8). This illustrates a strong top half but a relatively weaker bottom one, similar to the Premier League in many ways. La Liga has the tightest bottom half between the three leagues with only 13 points dividing 8th spot until 19th. The league averages in terms of PPG are 1.397 (PL) with 8 sides averaging above that figure, 1.395 (Bundesliga) where 8 sides (out of 18) sit above that average and 1.387 (La Liga) where only 7 sides sit above the average.
Firstly, when it comes to analyzing results between the top 5 and bottom 5 in the 3 leagues it becomes clear that the Bundesliga is the “tougher” league. The bottom 5 are more often than ever getting results against the teams in the race for the Champions League. However, one must not lose sight of the fact that Bayern Munich, the reigning champions and arguably the best club in Europe currently, have a 25 win, 1 draw and no loss record against the bottom five since 2012/13. Real Madrid is the only other side in the study that has not lost to any side in the bottom 5. They have a 22/4/0 record. In La Liga, the top sides are winning more now than they had been in 2012/13. In the Premier League, though, the top 5 are winning less than in 2012/13 but the occasions on which they lose to sides in the bottom 5 are now lower than ever. Draws are the new wins for sides near the bottom of the table in the PL.
Secondly, in the race for the Champions League spots, the Premier League proves to be a closed shop, so to speak. Fewer sides have experienced CL football from the PL than within any of the other two leagues. La Liga is the most open as 4th spot seems to be open season with a number of teams historically capable of finishing there. Whether this trend continues, with clubs like Valencia and Villareal back on financial track after a few years of turmoil, is yet to be seen.
From the perspective of CL qualification, La Liga is far more open than either of the other two leagues due to the strength and proximity of most of the sides from 4th all the way down towards the bottom. This, though, also means that in terms of a genuine title challenge it is unlikely than anyone outside the top 3 has a chance. But is it any different in the other leagues? As competitive as the PL is in the top 4, only 3 sides have won the trophy over the last decade and only 5 since its inception in 1992/93.
The Bundesliga is where the bottom 5 fare the best against sides in the top 5. This is largely precipitated by the fact that outside Bayern Munich and Dortmund (at least until this season), a number of sides were in genuine contention of CL football in recent seasons. Its the only league in which the top 5 are unbeaten in under 90% of their games against their counterparts from the bottom of the table.
Throughout the article, different tools have been utilized in the hope of unanimously confirming which of the major leagues is the “toughest”. However, it is our assessment that the only way to conclusively answer that question is to take a point of view relative. From the perspective of the top 5 then the Premier League is probably the most closed league when it comes to how the top of the table is laid out. This is cemented by evidence including the fact that far less sides have qualified for the CL from the PL than either of the other two leagues. Furthermore, it is now rarer than ever for a side in the bottom 5 to beat one in the top 5 of the PL and Mourinho’s assertions are probably undermined through this. Any results to the contrary usually bore out of the under-performance of the top sides. One must remember that PL sides have failed to dominate in European football over recent seasons, unlike La Liga sides or even the top German Bundesliga sides. Whilst Mourinho’s argument includes stating that sides in Spain know that they will lose to Barcelona or Real Madrid and therefore don’t put up enough of a fight at times might be valid to a degree, it is no indication of the weakness of the bottom sides as much as it is of the strength of those sides. The terrain is not far more different in the Premier League as our findings have illustrated.
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
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.
Looking back over the years you would find it difficult to recall when was the last time that Real Madrid and Spain captain Iker Casillas was not “number 1” whenever he’s been available for selection. Since making his club debut in 1999, he’s effectively been first choice at Real Madrid, from the tender age of 18. He went on to make his international debut only a few days after representing Real Madrid in the successful 2000 Champions League Final, having just 19 years of age. It would be the summer of 2002 that he would be promoted to first choice in the national side, starting off at the World Cup in Japan/Korea. He hasn’t looked back since. He’s set himself up as a constant in the ever-evolving institution at Real Madrid.
At international level, though, a few talented keepers have been around the team over the years, including Santiago Canizarez, the man who he’d displaced, Diego Lopez, Pepe Reina, and Victor Valdes, Barcelona’s number one. Valdes only began getting called up to the national side, when contrary to popular belief, also known as speculation in the Madrid press, it was proven that he would not be a bad influence in the dressing room of the national side even when he knew he would rarely get a start, just like Pepe Reina had accepted before him. Valdes, like Reina, has gone on to improve team harmony and add to the spirit that exists between the team-mates, although it must be said that the national side players, namely the Barcelona and Real Madrid contingent have yet to share three or four weeks together in tournament mode since Jose Mourinho arrived in Spain to take the competitive nature of “El Clasico” to another level.
Now, only 30 years old, Casillas, practically a baby in goalkeeper years, has amassed over 600 matches for Real Madrid and 127 caps for Spain. He’s also won every major club and international trophy before he turned 30. His clean cut image in the media as well as his undoubted ability and talent in goal has meant that he’s virtually never had any competition in the Real Madrid goal.
Valdes is a talented keeper in his own right, with some believing that in recent years he’s played at a higher, more consistent, level than Casillas. Whilst this may be tantamount to blasphemy in Spain, we’ve found the holy ground where we could analyze this assertion without the fear for our lives. Before comparing the respective keepers performances over the past three seasons, you’d be forgiven if you had forgotten that VV, as he’s know in some quarters, has been around for almost as long as Casillas. A product of La Masia, Valdes made his debut under Raddy Antic during the 2002/3 season at the age of 21. He would go on to displace Roberto Bonano (remember him?), and establish himself as regular first choice by the start of the next season. He would win the league title by the age of 23, Barcelona’s first in 6 years. He’s also won every club trophy that there is on offer before the age of 30. He’s won the World Cup in 2010 but is yet to pick up the European Championships trophy, although he may well change that this summer.
Victor has also won more Zamora trophies than his counterpart Iker. For those of you who don’t know, the Zamora is an award given to the goalkeeper in La Liga with the lowest goals to games ratio. VV has picked it up 4 times as opposed to the solitary success of Casillas. Valdes, however, has always fallen short in international recognition and plaudits when compared to Iker. Be it reputation, popularity, the memory of early promise, or a stronger, more influential press behind him, Iker Casillas excels on that front. It was as late as last season, in the midst of Arsenal’s Champions League clash with Barcelona, when sections of the broadcast British media highlighted Victor Valdes as a weak link and an average keeper who Arsenal can take advantage of. It was obvious they hadn’t watched VV closely since his floppy-hair years.
Voices from Barcelona have been saying for a while now that Victor Valdes deserves to be Spain’s first choice goalkeeper. It’s our purpose here to highlight and compare the performances of both keepers largely over the last 2 and a half seasons, including the on-going campaign, in order to draw certain conclusions and not to express a matter of opinion. We will compare and contrast both keepers performances, across a range of categories including shot stopping, passing skills, types of goals conceded, clean sheets as well as having a brief look at their respective records in the Champions League, in the hope of making concrete assertions in answering the question at hand.
It’s widely accepted that both goalkeepers are excellent shot stoppers, possibly outside England, where Iker Casillas was once called a “lucky goalkeeper who is always in the right position” by Ron Atkinson. Regardless, statistics prove that both keepers are among the best in Europe and have been for a long time. It has probably taken VV a little longer to receive acknowledgement for his ability though. Valdes has really emerged with a reputation under Pep Guardiola’s reign where he has become an integral part of the way Barcelona play in his position of sweeper keeper, a role from the Dutch Total Football philosophy.
When it comes to pure shot stopping, both keepers have saved over 75% of the shots taken against them through out their La Liga careers. With close to 750 matches between them, it proves a level of consistency and longevity beyond their years. Casillas has saved a staggering 80%-plus in 3 of his seasons including his breakthrough year in 1999/2000, however the last of which had been in 2007/8. VV, on the other hand, has achieved an 80%-plus save ratio twice, but once as recently as last season. Valdes has only averaged more than a goal a game against a season once in his career and that was in his debut season. Casillas, on the other hand, has averaged less than a goal a game against a season only 5 times during his 12 full seasons. A staggering difference, but arguably inconclusive, as Casillas has been “blessed” with less than adept defences over the years. If anything, though, it brought out the best in him, as he was peppered with shots against. Last season, Iker had the least amount of shots against him over his career. Between the two of them, they’ve had close to 300 clean sheets with VV edging it despite having played significantly less matches.
Since 2009/10, VV has gone on from strength to strength, just as his club has, and has a save ratio of at least 77%, winning two Zamoras (with the current season on-going, although VV currently leads again), Casillas has seen his save ratio drop year by year, currently standing at 70% this season. One last interesting fact is that Valdes has never had more than 147 shots against him in a league campaign, whilst Casillas has had at least 159 shots against him in 8 of his 12 campaigns and has definitely been the busier of the two during his career. On the flip side, as most goalkeepers will tell you, remaining switched on and being focused when you have less to do is sometimes more difficult than being busy for 90 minutes when you are not allowed to switch off for a second.
“You give the ball to me”. That’s simply what Victor Valdes is suggested to say in the infamous Youtube video circulated all over the Internet last year. He is considered by some to be among the best if not the best keeper in the world when it comes to passing a football. Barcelona would probably not look much weaker if VV turned up somewhere in the outfield for them. That is why his momentary lapse at the Santiago Bernabéu inside the first minute of the game when he gave the ball away to be punished by Karim Benzema to the fullest extent was such a surprise. His composure and confidence to keep on attempting to play the short pass subsequently was praiseworthy. VV has had the most successful passes by a goalkeeper in Spain in recent seasons (823 and 617 complete passes in the last two seasons). After 21 games during the current campaign he’s had 447 successful passes and is on route to potentially breaking his own pass record. What is more telling is that his success ratio is something a central midfielder would be proud of. He has averaged 82.3%, 86.4% and 86.5% respectively during the last two full seasons as well as the on-going campaign. He has not hit more than 23 long passes in a single season during any of that time either. That is an extraordinary feat. Just to put it in context, 257 out of the 368 passes Joe Hart has made this season have been long passes.
Iker Casillas, has hit 580, 474 and 318 successful passes over the past two and a half campaigns. His pass success ratio stands at 68.1%, 75% and 76.4% over that period. It is clear that his passing has “improved” under Jose Mourinho. However, it may be more explanatory that under Mourinho, Real Madrid tend to pass the ball out of the back far more than previously when long goal kicks and long passes from deep were far more profound. In 2009/10 when VV attempted 23 long passes, Casillas had attempted 102, but had better success at it with 24 reaching its destination as opposed to only 3 by VV. In fact, VV has not had more than 3 successful long passes during any of the past two and a half seasons. This season, Casillas has had 49 long passes attempted with 12 reaching their target. In terms of long goal kicks, VV only attempts less than half the amount of times Casillas decides to go long, with only 85 attempts from 2010/11 onwards to Iker’s 224, again indicative of the style each prefers.
Domination of Penalty Area and Beyond
As an extension of their shot-stopping skills, both keepers possess a great domination of their penalty areas especially off set plays. Casillas has not conceded a goal off a corner kick from 2010/11 onwards. Valdes has conceded a solitary goal during each of the last campaign and the current one. When it comes to shots from 6 yards out both save more than they let in. Casillas has improved his goalkeeping from long range shots too, having now only conceded 2 off 30 shots this season, as opposed to a combined 8 goals from 76 shots during the past two league seasons. VV has conceded 7 goals from 94 long range shots since 2009/10, thus providing slightly more secure hands behind the gloves from distance.
Both keepers are on their toes constantly and there is little to choose from when it comes to clearing the ball from danger, usually getting there before the attacker. In 2010/11, Iker cleared the ball 115 times to VV’s 100 times, whilst this season, VV has done so 72 times to Iker’s 67.
Blanking the Opposition
Ask any keeper and they will tell you that the most important thing for them is the clean sheet, whether they have any work to do or not. Championships are won based on good defences. When it comes to keeping a clean sheet, Victor Valdes is in a league of his own in La Liga. With a career total of 150 clean sheets in only 316 games, he has 10 more clean sheets than Casillas, having played 125 less matches. He’s had at least 15 clean sheets in a full league campaign in 6 of the 8 seasons which he has started. Casillas has only done so 3 times out of the 12 full league campaigns he’s been a part of.
The Holy Grail AKA Champions League
Europe’s elite competition is probably revered as highly as the World Cup and European Championships when it comes to quality of football on offer. It has taken football to the next level. Players who dominate their respective league competitions may fall short on Europe’s Tuesday and Wednesday nights and thus create question marks over whether they actually are as good as they had been billed previously. Today, its difficult to label someone as “world class” unless they’ve shown their qualities in the Champions League.
Once again, Victor Valdes has a better ratio when it comes to goals conceded per game, just as he has had in La Liga. Interestingly, he has also won more Champions League medals than his counterpart too. He also has more clean sheets despite playing less matches and has a better career save ratio too.
The Bottom Line
As illustrated above, Iker Casillas and Victor Valdes have the track record and caliber to back their reputations, although VV probably does not get the credit which his performances and ability deserve, especially outside Spain. He has broken numerous records at domestic level, including a record number of consecutive shut outs at home and is tied first for most Zamora trophies. He is on route to potentially breaking Andoni Zubizaretta’s record of clean sheets if he continues performing at his level. He broke his club’s record for the longest amount of minutes without conceding a goal when he went 896 minutes without conceding earlier this season.
Casillas’ individual and collective honors are impressive enough even if he retires today. He’s surely Real Madrid and Spain’s most successful goalkeeper in history. He’s recently become his nation’s most capped player too. Considering his larger than life reputation, it’s not surprising that he escapes criticism or open comparison with pretenders to his thrown. Victor Valdes may surpass Casillas in many departments, with performances and statistics over the years certainly backing that argument, but he is unfortunate that his counterpart has such an established persona and reputation in world football.
With thanks to the good people at Opta Spain for their unconditional help in providing in-depth statistics that were used in compiling this article. A special thanks also for Aaron Nielsen for his help in providing statistics tracking back into the 1990’s. You can follow him on twitter @enbsports
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In a new series, we will look at players, managers and clubs that have been either rightly or wrongly praised or criticized and analyze whether it has been warranted. The inaugural edition will see Laurent Koscielny’s Arsenal career be put under the microscope.
When Arsene Wenger signed Laurent Koscielny, a relatively unknown name in France let alone abroad, from Lorient in the summer of 2010, the question was whether he would be the man that would shore up the eternally frail and leaky Arsenal defence. Whilst fans and experts alike had been hoping Wenger would dip into the transfer market for a more experienced player, Wenger’s policy of unearthing unknown players seemingly continued.
If his Premier League debut was anything to go on then it perfectly described his first season at the club. A steady and solid performance was marred by a one moment of inconsistency when he was sent off after being handed a second yellow card in stoppage time at Anfield. Tellingly, he received both his yellow cards in stoppage time, a sign of his inexperience at this level playing against arguably smarter opponents, players who had mastered the art of winning decisions. Over a few months, Koscielny was praised for his reading of the game, especially his interceptions of through balls. His style of play mirrored that of a defensive midfielder who was sweeping balls in front of the defence. He was a little eager to step up in front of his direct opponent sometimes, and was either physically bettered or would mis-judge the ball for a split second. Koscielny did not have the physique to allow an attacker to back into him and expect to come out with the ball so he would largely base his game upon coming around his opponent from the back and stealing the ball just before it reached the player. With such an “active” defending style, you may come out the winner 9 times out of 10 but as everyone knows defending is a thankless art as one mistake may be all it takes to concede a goal and be blamed for your team’s loss.
Critics were already out saying he would not be good enough at this level and that Wenger should be out looking for a more able defender to partner Thomas Vermaelen, when the Belgian international returned from injury. To be fair, it did not help Koscielny in his settling in period when Wenger had to chop and change the center back partnership throughout last season. Sebastian Squillaci and Johann Djorou were two of his regular partners at the back. Things looked on the up for Koscielny in the Champions League 2nd Round 1st Leg at home to Barcelona when he was praised for a magnificent performance largely up against Lionel Messi. It helped Arsenal win 2-1. Critics, though, argued he would not be a top drawer defender until those sort of performances of which the young Frenchman was clearly capable of would be more regular and consistent. They were somewhat vindicated within a few days, when Koscielny unfortunately had a starring role in gifting Birmingham City a goal late-on in the Carling Cup Final, a match which dealt a major dent in Arsenal’s season and created a downhill slope from which they were never able to recover. Despite being written off by the end of the season, one man, other than Wenger, who remained vocal in his support for Koscielny was French journalist Juliens Laurens who stated on numerous times throughout the season that Koscielny was highly rated by the manager who wanted to build his defence around him and that there was no way he would be sold. One found it difficult to see how things would improve for the defender during his second season. Most Arsenal fans began calling for a “proper” center back to be signed during the summer, instead of depending on a player who had only 1 season’s worth of experience at Ligue 1 before signing for Arsenal. Despite a mixed season, one of Koscielny’s personal highlights had been getting his first international cap for France, having been called up by Laurent Blanc.
What had Wenger seen in him when he signed him? Looking at the stats, during the 2009/10 season with Lorient, Koscielny had 2.3 tackles per game, the 8th highest rate for center backs in Ligue 1. However, in terms of interceptions, standing at 4.5 per game, he had the highest rate for center backs in the league and the second highest overall, falling short by 0.3 interceptions per game. He also added 9.4 clearances per game, again the second highest in the league for center backs as well as overall. It was clear that Koscielny’s reading of the game and mobility to get in front of the attacker was at the fore of Wenger’s decision to sign him. By the end of the 2010/11 season with Arsenal, Koscielny undertook 2 tackles per game, which left him 16th overall between all center backs, not a good return for a player playing for a side in the Champions League positions. His interception rate had dropped to 2.8 per game, but in the faster paced Premier League, this was still the 3rd highest rate for center backs and 8th overall. Impressively, he also had the 5th highest number of off-sides won in the league, again another characteristic that labels him as an active stopper rather than a passive cover-type defender. He is always on the edge of pushing the ante and moving forward to attack the ball, a beautiful sight in defending when he pulls it off, but a disaster leaving him on his back when he fails to be successful in his attempts. Unfortunately, the latter happened one too many times during his first season in Arsenal. Finally, in terms of clearances, he had 6.9 per game, making him 32nd overall in a league where no nonsense defending is quite popular and a measure of how fans rate their old-school “British defenders”.
By the end of the proceeding summer transfer window, Arsenal had signed experienced German international defender Per Mertesacker who had 80 caps for the German national team as, seemingly, the long-term partner for Vermaelen who was on the verge of a return. Whether that helped play a role in spurring Koscielny to be more focused on the pitch is moot. Despite starting the early season well, Koscielny was involved in two of Arsenal’s most humiliating losses of the season, 8-2 at Manchester United and 4-3 at Blackburn Rovers, scoring an own goal in the latter. It seemed like things were as they had been at the end of the previous season and the Frenchman’s Arsenal career may be coming to a standstill. However, a short-term injury to Vermaelen gave Koscielny one more chance and this time he forged a solid partnership with Mertesacker, forming the backbone of Arsenal’s recovery from near the bottom of the table to their current position in and around the Champions League spots. Contrary to tradition, Arsenal also qualified comfortably from their Champions League group and avoided a customary clash with Barcelona, at least for now. With the summer that Arsenal have had, losing two of, arguably, their three world class players, in Fabregas and Nasri, they have done marvelously well in remaining competitive after an early-season faltering start that had many questioning whether Arsene Wenger should remain in charge. Koscielny has played a starring role this season and has been Arsenal’s steadiest defender at a time when their defence has been badly hit by injuries, as a result of which Vermaelen has had to play at left back at times, Koscielny has filled in at right back for a few games, young Coquelin has also slotted in at full back, whilst Djorou has had a few decent games at right back too.
By early January, Koscielny ranked 1st in the league in between center backs for tackles at 2.7 per game, 1st in the league between center backs for interceptions with 2.8 per game, 2nd overall with 1.6 off-sides won per game and 30th overall with 5.7 clearances per game. Had Arsenal played a bit more like Stoke and had a less passing style of football, Koscielny’s clearance figures would surely have been higher too. What those figures exhibit is that Koscielny has remained consistent and improved steadily, especially in the tackling department, adding almost 1 extra successful tackle per game, which is significant at this level in a season when the league’s general level of defending has arguably deteriorated. Statistically, he is in the current team of the season, whichever angle you look at it from, even though he may not win as much plaudits compared to some of the media’s favorite players, based upon reputation. He has improved his figures in most of the categories analyzed which is as much as Wenger could’ve asked of him this season. Most impressively has been his success at not only reading the game well but ensuring that he comes in from behind the attacker and cut out the ball, something which was not coming off as much last season. He no longer is brushed off the ball as easily and it’s clear to see his confidence in his own ability to perform is higher than its ever been. He now actually believes that he belongs in the Arsenal team. He’s had a few man of the match performances this season, namely at the Velodrome at Marseille where he was magnificent as well as at Stamford Bridge, against Chelsea, where despite conceding 3 goals, Koscielny was one of the key performers who helped Arsenal overcome a late Chelsea revival.
Despite huge questions marks lingering over the signing of Koscielny, Arsene Wenger stood by his man at each and every cross-roads. He continuously praised him and had faith that the now 26 year old would be a key component of the Arsenal back-line, almost to a point of ridicule. Wenger’s belief that mobility can better serve than physique for center backs as football moves forward has begin to be vindicated with both Vermaelen and Koscielny having strong attributes in that respect. Question marks never stood against the Belgian’s quality but over his injury proneness. Koscielny, however, has had to respond to criticism since entering English football, but it is safe to say that if he keeps performing as he is this season, then he would have quashed them comprehensively by the end of the season.