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Premier League Miscalculates Value of Europa League

La Liga will have 5 teams participating in the Champions League next season thanks to Sevilla’s success in the Europa League. Premier League clubs, though, continue to, publicly at least, shun their involvement in Europe’s second major club competition. Managers at clubs, as big as Spurs and Liverpool, constantly bemoan their potential participation on Thursday nights. As a result, by this time next year, Serie A could, potentially, regain its 4th Champions League spot, at the expense of the PL, largely due to poor performances by the latter’s clubs in the Europa League. This is facilitated by England losing its highest co-efficient points (2010/11) from the calculation period next season. The question is why is there such a disdain by PL clubs in taking the competition seriously?

Spurs, Liverpool, and Everton are sides who have experienced Champions League action due to their league position on an inconsistent basis over the past decade. The gap between the “Big Four”, which includes Chelsea, Manchester City, Arsenal, Manchester United and other clubs is arguably greater than ever (with the caveat of Manchester United’s out of character last couple of seasons). Three spots are probably etched in stone whilst a 4th CL may be open to a challenge, at some point during the season, before the CL regular pulls away. It is a vicious cycle as the financial benefits gained from the CL allow the respective sides to build and develop a playing squad that is able to “compete” on two fronts – without necessarily challenging for a trophy on either. Clubs who miss regular participation in Europe’s elite competition arguably do not have the squad depth to similarly compete in a balanced way.

Considering that the league is a 38-game slug-fest, it’s difficult to understand why some clubs prefer to prioritize the league route (not even a title challenge) to the CL over a Europa League one especially with the knowledge that victory there would guarantee a CL spot. Winning the Europa League would include a, approximately, 17-match journey for PL clubs, less than half the games of the league season. In reality, a side could gain the CL spot by winning as little as 6 or 7 matches during the campaign. Surely by mid-February, the start of the knock-out rounds, clubs would be in a good position to strategize the rest of their season’s assault rationally. History suggests that they are far likelier to reap the rewards by prioritizing winning the Europa League over a futile 4th spot race, unless they are already comfortably ahead in that race. In the age of projections and statistic models, it would not take much for clubs to have a clear indication of where they should put their focus on and it’s hard to conclude that it would be pointing towards the league.

Instead, PL clubs such as Spurs, this season, find their seasons fizzling out towards the end of March when it’s clear that the CL assault through the league is over, following their exit from the Europa League, had they been in it in the first place. For others, such as Everton, their assault is usually over far earlier in the season.

Next season, Liverpool and West Ham should be joining Spurs and possibly Southampton in the Europa League. For at least 2 if not 3 of those sides the mathematical likelihood of finishing 4th is slim to none. It would be good to hear a more re-conciliatory approach by their managers when it comes to targeting the Europa League. There is no logical reason for there not to be one as long as they have secured their club’s position in the league, away from relegation. There is no reason why these clubs cannot target a more realistic Europa League-placing through the league whilst challenging for a CL spot through the European competition itself. If they don’t, sooner than later, there is a real risk that the PL will surrender the coveted fourth position to Serie A, as quickly as in 12 months time.

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Europe’s Toughest League : Is Mourinho Right About the Premier League?

February 12, 2015 Leave a comment

Jose-Mourinho

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

Premier League

PL Top vs Bottom

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.

La Liga

La Liga Top vs Bottom

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.

Bundesliga

Bundesliga Top vs Bottom

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.

Top 2 vs Bottom 5

The Race for the Champions League

Number of Champions League Qualifiers

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.

Bundesliga Analysis

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.

La Liga Analysis

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.

PL Analysis

Points Per Game / Final League Positions for the 2013/14 Season

The Vertical Axis represents an average of points per game for the 2013/14 whilst the horizontal axis represents a club's final position

The Vertical Axis represents an average of points per game for the 2013/14 whilst the horizontal axis represents a club’s final position

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.

Points per game tables

Conclusions

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.

Matches within which the Champions League sides have played against sides in bottom 5

Matches within which the Champions League sides have played against sides in bottom 5

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.

The More Things Change, the More They Stay the Same: Season Preview 2013/14

August 16, 2013 1 comment

Higuain

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?

Premier League

Arsene Wenger ponders what has gone wrong at Arsenal this summer

Arsene Wenger ponders what has gone wrong at Arsenal this summer

Summary

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

La Liga

La Liga has witnessed a summer exodus and no club has been hit more than Sevilla

La Liga has witnessed a summer exodus and no club has been hit more than Sevilla

Summary

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

Bundesliga

Jurgen Klopp & Dortmund look ready to get back the title they lost to Bayern last season

Jurgen Klopp & Dortmund look ready to get back the title they lost to Bayern last season

Summary

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

Serie A

Summary

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

Defending Your League Title: Analyzing Failure

April 18, 2013 2 comments

Dortmund Hungry

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)

Rovers Title

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.

Rovers Fail

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.

Depor Fail

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.

Roma Fail

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.

Dortmund Fail

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)

Giroud

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.

Montpellier Fail

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.

Man City Fail

Those Who Succeeded in Defending their Title

Chelsea (Defended their Premier League Title in 2005/6)

Arsenal v Chelsea

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).

Chelsea Success

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.

Dortmund Success

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.

Juve Success

Common Themes

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.

The Big Brother’s Little Sister: What UEFA needs to do with the Europa League

November 21, 2012 10 comments

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”

Barcelona, here represented by Jose Mourinho, the late Sir Bobby Robson and Ronaldo celebrate winning one of the predecessors of the current Europa League, the prestigious Cup Winner’s Cup in 1997

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.

It’s time for UEFA to take steps before the Europa League is firmly left behind for good

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.

UEFA President Michel Platini must offer a little more substance and a little less talk in re-igniting interest and importance in the Europa 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.

Parachuting into Defence: The Busquets Role

April 4, 2012 11 comments

Football is in an era where live television, Internet and, most recently, social media coverage mean that virtually everything is covered from all angles. There is a school of thought that there are no more surprises in the world of football, especially when it comes to tactics. The World Cup used to be place where managers pitted wits against each other and displayed tactical “evolutions” which would go on to trickle down towards club football until the next show-and-tell four years later. Each country brought a bit of what they’d been undertaking domestically over recent years and displayed it in front of world cameras. Had there been similar coverage to what we have today then the impact of the “Mighty Magyars” tactical performance against England at Wembley in 1953 would’ve been diminished as it would have been noted earlier. The WM, the Ajax model, the libero, the 4-2-3-1, the “Makelele role” and the “false 9” provide a range of tactical cornerstones and innovations in the history of football. Now, we’ve been introduced to what can, and very well should, be another cornerstone. We’re going to call it “the Busquets role”.

In 2009, Jonathan Wilson, author of Inverting the Pyramid: A History of Football Tactics, spoke about the potential return of the sweeper in modern football. Whilst taking that argument as a basis, renowned tactical expert Michael Cox, of Zonalmarking, stated that due to the popularity of one-striker formations, the modern “sweeper” may not be the spare man pushing up into midfield leaving a 1 vs 1 situation, but rather a defensive midfielder dropping into defence. This would effectively split the central defenders as the said player slots into the middle, whilst the “full backs” already starting a little further ahead than their central defensive colleagues, would have further license to bombard forward. At the time, Cox theorized that a crucial aspect of Pep Guardiola’s tactical success in overloading the midfield, pressing his opponents and keeping possession, had seen Sergio Busquets, the defensive midfielder, drop into defence, pushing up Eric Abidal and especially Dani Alves into extremely advanced positions. This allowed Busquets to drop into space, dictate possession and spray the ball across from the back. His performances and role for Barcelona are often overlooked by people with less of an eye for the smallest details defining success. Cox labelled Busquets role as a traditional “center half”, a term used to describe a player dropping into central defence from midfield, before it was falsely mirrored, largely by British “pundits”, to reflect a center back.

Barcelona's "4-3-3" on paper and how it really plays. Sergio Busquets (16), Eric Abidal (21) and Dani Alves (2) circled as movement crucial to shape. Rest of starting line-up can be followed according to numbers from first diagram. Match vs Athletic Bilbao played on March 31, 2012

Whilst on paper Barcelona may line up 4-3-3, in practice it has become much harder to decipher their formation. However, by using an analysis of average positions, it is safer to call their formation a 3-4-3 (if not a 2-1-4-3) system with Busquets as the traditional center half between two central defenders. As a consequence, both full backs are able to play the role of wide midfielders and sometimes even wingers. Sometimes, if Guardiola picks Puyol, Pique and Mascherano as 3 members of the “back four” in defence, the remaining full back, likely to be Dani Alves, pushes up to a winger’s role, whilst Busquets holds his ground next to a more disciplined midfielder such as Seydou Keita, effectively forming a belt of three as a second line in front of the back three. Barcelona used this shape against Milan in the Champions League Quarter Final First Leg, where they virtually lined up as a 3-3-3-1. In this instance, Busquets continues to provide cover but not necessarily as the “center half” which he usually does. Incidentally, its the presence of Javier Mascherano, a natural defensive midfielder, in central defence, which frees up Busquets and gives the tactical flexibility to Barcelona. In either shape, Barcelona are able to free up their wide players and provide adequate cover in defence too. Only Xavi and Dani Alves pass the ball more per game than Sergio Busquets does from his center half position.

Sergio Busquets' heat map signifies the different roles he plays when Barcelona utilize him as a "center half" as against Athletic Bilbao (31/3/2012) and when they play with a more orthodox back-3 of Puyol, Pique and Mascherano with Busquets in central midfield. In the former, he has far more defensive duties and his heat map reflects that. In the latter, he has a freer role which allows him to advance further forward whilst minimizing his defensive duties as Barcelona already have a "third man" cover at the back. The letter "D" represents the goal Barcelona are defending

Marcelo Bielsa’s Athletic Bilbao has played some of the best football in Europe this season. Even though they are on the verge of making it two cup final appearances for the season, the lack of depth in the squad has meant Athletic has not been able to fight on three fronts, without hampering their league form. Nevertheless, one of the cornerstones of their play has been the placement of Javi Martinez, arguably a world class central midfielder, in central defence, probably more a la Mascherano than Busquets, but still worth a mention. Can we classify him as a center half?

Interestingly, whilst, on paper, Athletic have largely set up as 4-3-3 this season, in reality, they play a 3-4-3 (or 2-1-4-3 to be precise) similar to Barcelona in many ways. Javi Martinez plays at center back but the “center half” role is largely filled by Ander Iturraspe, who drops in from central midfield. Javi Martinez plays as more of a conventional center back with passing ability, an added bonus. His reading of the game and athleticism like Mascherano’s has allowed him to fit in at the back rather effortlessly. The end result is the same, as Iturraspe’s presence allows Aurtenexte and Iraola to bombard forward with the “right back” effectively playing as a winger. However, the consequence of playing someone with Javi Martinez’s passing ability in defence is that he is able to dictate play from deep. He averages over 50 passes a match and touches the ball more than any other Athletic player. Furthermore, the space and time that he has on the ball helps him to confirm his accuracy, where once again he leads his teammates. Just to illustrate the difference it has made to his game as opposed to the past when he has played in central midfield, his passing accuracy is up by 10% whilst he is averaging 20 more passes a game compared to his performances last season. It must be stated that Bielsa’s Bilbao side implement a much more passing game as opposed to the more direct approach of last season, however, Javi Martinez’s coming of age as an individual in his new role must not be downplayed either.

In the first diagram, Athletic's average positions, as opposed to the "4-3-3" reported on paper, are depicted. The shape closely signifies how Barcelona set up. Aurtenexte (3), Iturraspe (8) and Iraola (15) are circled. Other starting XI players include numbers (5), (24 Javi Martinez) in defence, (10) and (21) in central midfield and (19), (9) and (14). This is a typical Athletic set-up from this season, taken from the match vs Sporting on March 25, 2012. The second picture represents Iturraspe's heat map. Again this closely represents areas/positions a center half moves into, just as we've previously seen with Busquets.

For Mascherano, whilst he can’t expect to be the biggest passer of the ball at Barcelona, he does average 20 and 25 passes a game higher than Pique and Puyol, the other regular center backs, respectively, and that is another significant statistic. He may have been labelled as someone who can’t “pass the Barcelona way” after joining them from Liverpool, but the faith that Guardiola has kept in him is reciprocated by his performances, even from a passing perspective. One positive of playing players such as Javi Martinez and Mascherano in orthodox central defensive roles is that their reading of the game and intelligence from midfield is translated to higher interceptions and successful tackles than anyone else in their respective squads, hence winning the ball back and getting on it far more than other counterparts. The bottom line is their passing statistic. But as its clear, there is a whole chain of thought, by their managers, and events that lead one there.

The Busquets experimented has been exported abroad too. In Serie A, Roma’s Luis Enrique, with obvious strong influences from Barcelona, has sought to play an attacking 4-3-3 formation. Pressured to include Francesco Totti, Luis Enrique has varied his 4-3-3 somewhat resembling a diamond-shape in the middle with Totti or at times Erik Lamela, dropping behind two strikers at the top end. At the other end, Danielle De Rossi has played in the Busquets role dropping in between the two center backs, Juan and Simon Kjaer, and dictated play from deep. His reading of the game has been vital in allowing further risks to be taken by Roma’s players in advancing forward. Whilst results have been mixed, the same cannot be said of De Rossi’s performances. Arguably, Roma’s best and most consistent performer this season, he also leads them in passes, interceptions and is amongst their best tacklers. He also plays 1 key pass per game (WhoScored), which is impressive for someone who is playing so deep. According to James Horncastle, a leading European football writer and expert in Italian football, the Busquets role is labelled the “Parachute” in Italy. Horncastle states that, according to De Rossi himself, Luis Enrique gave him tapes of Oriel Romeu and not Busquets when explaining the role to the Italian. Horncastle added “De Rossi plays this role. Its the keystone of Roma’s play under Luis Enrique. Without it, they are a different side”.

Luis Enrique's Roma during three different matches this season. Against Novara on April 1, 2012, Danielle De Rossi (16) plays as a left-sided center back, with Gago (19) attempting to play in De Rossi's center half role. Jose Angel (3) and Rodrigo Taddei (11) provide width. The shape resembles a 2-3-2-2-1 and is a bit imbalanced. Roma won 5-2. In the second picture, from a game versus Genoa a week earlier, they play a 2-1-4-2-1 (as close to a Barcelona 3-4-3 or 2-1-4-3 as possible). De Rossi reverts to center half with Lamela (8) playing the Messi role. There is more balance in midfield and Roma win 1-0. In the final picture, Roma perfect the system against Inter in February. The center backs are split wider allowing De Rossi to slot in perfectly. The midfield is more balanced and the shape is a 2-1-4-3 with starters including (5), (4) in defence, De Rossi at center half, Jose Angel and Taddei wide, (15) and (19) in central midfield and (31), (10) and (8) the threesome up front. Roma won 4-0.

Interestingly, De Rossi has also played as a center back on a couple of occasions, against Juventus in December, as well as Novara this past weekend. Whilst he performed admirably against Juventus and scored a goal, he was less influential in terms of dictating play. Nevertheless, Roma looked more solid and drew 1-1 at home. He averaged between 25 and 35 fewer passes compared to his season average on both occasions of playing in central defence. Nevertheless, it allows Roma to take extra attacking liberties. They virtually played as a 2-3-3-1-1 against Novara. However, the inability of Fernando Gago to provide better defensive cover a la Busquets or even Iturraspe means that Roma will not benefit by playing Danielle De Rossi in central defence as much as they potentially could. This is further confirmed by the influence that he holds by playing in the Parachute for Roma. As much as Luis Enrique has tried to bring in the Barcelona-system (2-1-4-3), he has been let down largely due to the parts (players) not fitting the system as quickly as he would have hoped.

De Rossi's heat map as a left sided central defender and as a center half in two different games this season.

When you implement the Busquets role, you will need two attacking full backs who are able to provide width as well as undertake their fair share of defending as a prerequisite. Adriano, Dani Alves and Andoni Iraola fulfill those duties for their respective clubs. Luis Enrique has been unable to nail down the right players for those roles. Jose Angel and Aleandro Rosi, whilst talented, have needed time to adapt to their roles, whilst Rodrigo Taddei has been converted to a full back this season and has not been able to produce an acceptable transition back to defence yet. Nevertheless, De Rossi’s role and performances has never been in question. When in full flow and everything falling into place, De Rossi’s performances in between the two central defenders provides both cover as well as passing tempo, setting every attack into motion. One such example was when Roma played Inter Milan in February and came out 4-0 winners. De Rossi dominated the game on both fronts, whilst the Roma shape and flow was as disciplined as it was beautiful. De Rossi made 99 passes, the most on the pitch, and the team kept the right width, shape and positions on the field, perfectly illustrating a 3-4-3 (2-1-4-3) formation, as it should be.

In the forum of tactical “innovation”, managers are always looking for ways to gain an advantage over the opposition. This has led to the reincarnation of the center half. The benefits of having a center half in front of the defence instead of a traditional destroyer, anchor or even an Andrea Pirlo-esque deep-lying playmaker is that in many ways it blends facets of those roles into one. This allows more attacking full backs (and in some ways requires them more than allows for them), as well as the ability to flood the midfield and dominate possession with up to seven players (usually in a 2-1-4-3 shape) outnumbering the opposition. Spain has been the setting for the most experiments when it comes to the re-emergence of the role, as well as other variants of the re-inventing traditional midfielders. We’ve talked about Busquets and Iturraspe as well as Mascherano and Javi Martinez who have been turned into ball-playing center backs. It is no coincidence that Guardiola and Bielsa share similar values and visions on football. In Italy, Luis Enrique has done the same with Danielle De Rossi. He has played in both the Busquets role, or Parachute as it is referred to in Italy, as well as at times in the Mascherano one. His influence and performances have never been better throughout his career. Roberto Guana of Cesena has also played as the Parachute this season. However, as we’ve found out in order to get the best out of playing a center half, the set up, shape, and movement must follow suit too. Otherwise, one man may shine more than the team does, which would be, ultimately, fruitless in the pursuit of success. The English Premier League, Bundesliga and Ligue 1 have yet to delve into experimenting with such a role but if one had to pick a player who the role would fit like a glove then Rennes Yann M’Vila would be that player. His intelligence, reading of the game and passing ability provide him with all the necessary ingredients to benefit his next club side. Food for thought for a club like Arsenal.

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I would like to thank ESPN Soccernet’s GAMECAST services for providing key in-game diagrams that were used during the analysis above. With special thanks to work previously done by Jonathan Wilson and Michael Cox of Zonal Marking as well as conversations held with James Horncastle.

La Liga: What’s Changed in the Title Race this Season?

March 19, 2012 31 comments

As we draw towards the tail end of the Spanish Primera División, Real Madrid continue to set the pace with what could be a record-breaking season. Leading their bitter rivals, Barcelona, by 8 points, they are on course to win their first title since 2007/8, and go on to record the most points ever made in a single La Liga season, as well as most away wins and overall goals. Looking at those stats, it is all the most impressive considering that Jose Mourinho’s Los Merengues are trailblazing at a time when experts are debating whether the current Barcelona side, under Pep Guardiola, is worthy of being considered the greatest club side ever on the back of their recent achievements.

If anyone claims to have the definitive answer as to why Barcelona trail Real Madrid by such a significant gap, they’re lying. With the smallest of margins deciding who wins what, it would be useful to look at a number of the “small marginal changes” that have occurred this season, in order to draw certain factual conclusions, without leaving room to speculation.

Possession and Tiki-Taka

That’s the name of the game for Barcelona. Its been a cornerstone of their success under Guardiola. They averaged just over 72% of the ball last season, but are currently averaging “only” 70% this time around. Yes, you read that right, only 70%! Whilst it may not seem like much, at the summit of the game the difference between great and perfect is slim, especially if it’s a backwards step. They’re currently averaging 68% possession away from home, which is 3.5% less than last season. In terms of pass success ratio, they’ve slightly dropped off to 89% from an incredible 90% success ratio.

Real Madrid, on the other hand, have increased their possession of the ball by 5% to 61%. Their pass accuracy has also increased to 85% from 83%. Whilst Barcelona’s slight drop-off may not seem significant, as they are having a “relatively” successful season in the league by most standards other than their own, in a league where “draws are the new defeats” the margins are tight. Real Madrid’s improvement is a sure sign towards becoming more dominant and ruthless.

Score Goals When They Matter

Last season, La Liga ended with Real Madrid losing the race by 4 points. They scored more goals than Barcelona to no avail. They even drew one less match than Barcelona had. However, the key statistic that cost Mourinho’s side was their failure to score goals in key moments. Simply put, Real Madrid failed to score in 6 out of their 38 matches. They drew 3 of those games and lost the other 3. In the tightest of leagues, the slightest margin counts big and despite Cristiano Ronaldo’s record-breaking 40 goals as well as the side scoring an amazing 102 goals, it proved costly. Barcelona only failed to score twice.

This season has seen Real Madrid become more ruthless in front of goal. After 26 rounds of games, they have only failed to score twice. In theory, they may fail to score in a number of games till the end of the season and that could very well cost them a title. Barcelona have failed to score in 3 matches, effectively 1 more time in 11 less matches. So it may not be as much about Barcelona’s failings as much as it is about Real Madrid rectifying one of their few “failings”.

A Game of Two Halves, or at least the Second Half

Barcelona are notoriously strong starters to matches. Turn on the TV 15 minutes late and its likely you have missed a goal or two. Last season, they were 8-0 (goals scored-goals conceded) during the first 15 minutes of matches, and they are just as dominant again this season with a 14-4 record in the early stages of games. In fact, Barcelona usually have matches sewn up by the end of the first half. They had a 42-8 record last season. This season, they have an identical first half record even though there are still 11 matches to go. That’s quite significantly different to Real Madrid who have been poor starters to matches, especially this season. They have an 8-6 record in the opening 15 minutes of games, even though, strikingly, they get stronger as the half goes on. Away from home, they’ve only conceded two goals in the first half of games all season long.

It’s in the second half of games where Barcelona have found trouble and Real Madrid have found extra gears. Barcelona have a relatively poor first 15 minutes of the second half with a 12-5 record, already conceding more goals during that period compared to the whole of last season. However, it’s the final 15 minutes of the game, away from home, when Barcelona are at their most vulnerable. They have an 11-8 record during that period. It may still be a “winning” record, but as stated numerous times before, in a league of fine margins the smallest elements can sway a title race. Last season, for instance, the champions had a 21-5 record away from home during the last 15 minutes. Real Madrid, on the other hand, perform even better in second halves of games. They have scored an amazing 53 goals in the second half, conceding only 13. Last season, they “only” scored 56 goals, whilst conceding 26. Even more impressive is the way Mourinho’s side close out matches. They have a 17-3 record in the last 15 minutes of matches, as opposed to the 21-9 accumulated through the whole of the previous campaign. Conceding so late against Malaga at home cost Real Madrid 2 valuable points, and the side will rue giving away a free-kick in a dangerous position in stoppage time.

Much credit must go to the mental strength that Mourinho has instilled into his players to keep on pushing until the final whistle. The levels of concentration they’ve kept has minimized individual errors late in games too. The hunger is also there to want more goals even when the game is won, a criticism which is sometimes, possibly unjustly, aimed at Barcelona.

Resilience

Speaking about mental strength and concentration, Mourinho has instilled a “never say die” attitude in his players giving them the belief that they can come back from any deficit. Guardiola’s side have been relatively lax at times this season. They have twice lost half-time leads to end up drawing. Real Madrid almost always win when leading at half time, with Malaga being the only side in 2 years to avoid defeat at full time, after trailing at half time. Going back to last season, Barcelona, drew once and lost once after leading at half time, winning the other 21 occasions. Real Madrid, once again in resilience in the image of their manager, converted all 21 half-time leads to victories.

Mourinho has instilled a never-say-die attitude in his players

Even more surprisingly is how a team reacts to going a goal down. In Barcelona’s case, not too well. They have only won twice after conceding the first goal, drawing two and losing a further two. Real Madrid, on the other hand, lost only once after conceding the first goal as they recovered to win 7 times. They have also won by a one-goal margin on 6 occasions this season. Winning by one-goal is their most common type of victory. This is not say that they Real Madrid do not go on to romp opponents too. They have won by a margin of 3 goals or more in 13 matches, virtually half of their current La Liga games.

The Players

Every Barcelona and Real Madrid comparison has a Messi/Cristiano Ronaldo comparison at some point. Its pointless. There is nothing to add to what has already been said. Both players post incredible numbers and performances match after match. When everything is so tight between the two clubs, it may come down to one or two other players standing out more or less than they have before. But when we’re talking about almost 30 international players, consistency is usually a key constant. But not always.

Last season, Karim Benzema was on the verge of being let go of. He was even compared to a cat by his manager. Mourinho said he was overweight. He said he didn’t work hard enough. Nevertheless, he did end up scoring 15 goals, but at a key point of the season, Mourinho preferred to not play with Benzema even in an injury crisis. Gonzalo Higuain had an injury hit season too. It was largely hit and miss, but he ended up scoring 10 league goals. Between them, they started 36 matches in La Liga, and scored “only” 25 goals. Its a goal scoring record good enough at almost every club but not at Real Madrid and not when the margins are so close.

This season, Benzema, having shed a few pounds, and Higuain have had a healthy competition. What is more striking is that Mourinho has gotten both of them motivated and willing to rotate, largely irrespective of performance, as they’ve both been in fine form. They have started 29 league games between each other and have scored more than a goal a game, with a total of 31, a record, had it been owned by only one of them, on par with Messrs Messi and Ronaldo. Whenever one has tailed off the other has been ready to come on and make an impact.

Why have one when you can have both? Benzema and Higuain key actors in Real Madrid's improvement this season

Similarly, Angel Di Maria, has had an excellent season, even though he has virtually missed half of it. Despite starting only 12 matches, he’s already matched his goal/assist record from last year. He’d scored 5 and laid off another 13 before his injury, compared to 6 goals and 11 assists in 29 starts last year. Once again, Mourinho has managed to get an extra something from a player who had been criticized for his diving, play-acting and inability to perform consistently. His injury has meant that Kaka has gotten an unexpected opportunity and even though he isn’t the same player he was at his peak, he’s looked very useful for Real Madrid. In fact, Mourinho has said he’s never seen Kaka work harder for any team. He’s pitched in with 5 goals and 6 assists in only 14 starts this season.

On the other side of the spectrum, Barcelona have suffered with numerous injuries this season. Long-term victims include David Villa, Ibrahim Afellay and now, most worryingly, Eric Abidal requires a liver transplant. Carles Puyol has not been fully fit either and that has pressured Guardiola into selectively picking him for games, a fact which has not helped the captain gain consistency or hit top form. Alexis Sanchez, one of the club’s big summer signings, has only started 13 times, pitching in with 8 goals and 3 assists. Had he been fit throughout the season, he would’ve made Villa’s injury feel less influential. Going back to Puyol’s injury problems, even though they are nothing new, the main difference compared to last season was that Gerard Pique had been largely playing at the top of his game.

Guardiola has faced an injury crisis this season

This season, though, Pique, has found himself at the center of huge criticism, due to his dip in form. A pre-season which was hampered by injury as well as questions about his concentration on the pitch have meant that Pique, more than anyone, has missed Puyol. Pique has started only 13 times this season (29 starts last season), less than half of all of Barcelona’s matches. Most of the time he has been out injured but on a few occasions, mostly recently, he has been kept out of the side, even when Puyol has not been available. His tackle, interception and clearance figures have all dropped compared to last season by 0.3, 0.7 and 1.2 per game respectively to stand at 1.4, 1.2 and 2.4 per game (WhoScored). Most strikingly he has made 24 less passes per game this season than last. Guardiola has been lucky to have Javier Mascherano step into central defence and perform so admirably. On performance, Mascherano is, arguably, in the La Liga Team of the Season. His figures, in contrast to Piques, stand at a 3.7 tackles (a league high for center backs), 3.7 interceptions and 2.2 clearances per game. Nevertheless, “losing” both Pique and Puyol this season has hurt Barcelona, and they have conceded more goals as a result. A further dip in form for Pedro has only been compensated by recent emergences of Isaac Cuenca and Cristian Tello, both ahead of schedule, as well as the goals which Cesc Fabregas has been scoring.

All in all, while Real Madrid have had players like Kaka and Callejon ready to step in for the likes of Di Maria without hampering the team’s performance, Barcelona have not been lucky through a series of injuries, as well as, what must be said, an over-rotation of some players by Guardiola for the first time. Burn-out after playing over 60 matches for 3 consecutive seasons may have finally caught up with them.

Concluding Remarks

It is difficult to pin-point exactly what has been the catalyst for the relative shift in the fortunes of both clubs domestically and one must be wary when drawing conclusions. Despite the so-called “crisis” for Guardiola’s side, they convincingly beat Real Madrid in La Liga, after going behind with an early goal, picked up the Supercopa de España over Real Madrid in August 2011, won the European Supercup, the World Club Cup and knocked Mourinho’s side out of the Copa del Rey, with what included another away win in Madrid. Whilst Real Madrid have looked “better” against Barcelona this season than previously, the end result has largely been the same. Other than a nervous final 15 minutes at Camp Nou in the return leg of the Copa del Rey, where Real Madrid looked the more likelier side to net a winner, Barcelona have enjoyed another season with the upper hand in head-to-head meetings. Nevertheless, the capital club have been the more consistent side in the league due to some of the reasons highlighted above.

We’ve looked at what has changed more than why it’s changed because that would require deeper analysis over a longer period of time, possibly in the post-Mourinho and post-Guardiola periods. Nevertheless, two of the key themes of this article have been words like “relative” and “margin”. In what is an historic period for La Liga, the smallest of margins can be the difference between success and failure as Real Madrid found out last season, whilst Barcelona are finding out, to their dismay, now.

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