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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.

16 “Unheralded” Gems to Watch Out for at Euro 2012

As Euro 2012 dawns upon us, football supporters, analysts, and commentators have undertaken months of preparations in order to get ready for the tournament in Poland/Ukraine. Getting accustomed to pronunciations and playing backgrounds is just a couple of aspects that needed attention. Whilst players like Cristiano Ronaldo, Arjen Robben, Mario Balotelli and Frank Ribery are established enough to expect them to star at the event, each country has a group of players who have quietly made enough noise to be highlighted by football connoisseurs but maybe not by the couch football fan. We’re going to highlight one such player from each team in order to keep an eye out for during Euro 2012.

Ivan Perisic (Croatia)

The Borussia Dortmund attacking midfielder is only 23 years old and has made a solid start to his first season with the reigning two-time German champions, scoring 7 goals in a Bundesliga campaign where he found himself making an impact off-the-bench more than he would have liked. Perisic gives options across the midfield and is likely to find himself playing a similar role that he has been accustomed to with his club during the past season. What he does offer though is goals. He has scored over 31 goals during the last two club campaigns in Belgium and Germany.

Petr Jiracek (Czech Republic)

Already an established international midfielder, he is seen as the current hope of the generation after the golden one that had emerged in Czech Republic. Now 26, he made his international debut in September 2011, and scored a vital goal in the Euro 2012 play-offs against Montenegro. Wolfsburg pounced to sign him during the January transfer window as it was expected that his value would soar with an impressive tournament in Poland/Ukraine.

Jiracek in action for the Czeck Republic

Andreas Bjelland (Denmark)

A strong center back who finished the season playing in Denmark’s Superliga with Nordsjaelland, he has signed on to join Twente after Euro 2012. He is yet another potential star who has already been scouted adequately enough and moved to a new club before the tournament has kicked a ball. Bjelland has displaced Simon Kjaer as the likely partner for Daniel Agger, such has been his progress during the past 18 months. At a push, he is also able to fill in at full back as well as central midfield. He scored his first international goal against Australia in a recent friendly in June.

Danish center back Bjelland is expected to start next to Daniel Agger

Danny Welbeck (England)

The Manchester United striker impressed Sir Alex Ferguson during a loan spell at Sunderland in the 2010/11 season. That ensured his position in the first team for United during the recently completed campaign. He is usually praised for his team-work and off-the-ball movement more so than his goal-scoring prowess. He scored 12 goals in 40 matches for his club in all competition and netted his first international goal against Belgium during England’s final friendly before Euro 2012. He is expected to lead the line during Wayne Rooney’s absence through suspension.

Mathieu Debuchy (France)

The Lille full back has emerged as a consistent and sometimes spectacular player in Ligue 1 during recent seasons. He does pitch in with a few goals from right back and has already scored his first international goal recently. He is expected to start for Laurent Blanc’s side against England in Bacary Sagna’s absence. Nevertheless, it had been speculated that Debuchy may have displaced Sagna as first choice right back before the Arsenal defender’s unfortunate injury. He has been scouted by Manchester United during the past season.

Mats Hummels (Germany)

The former Bayern Munich reject has emerged as one of the leading central defenders in European football during the past two seasons. Forming a solid center back partnership with Nevan Subotic at club level, he has been unable to dispose either of Per Mertesacker or Holger Badstuber at international level yet, even though calls are increasing for his inclusion. In terms of overall attributes, he is arguably a better player than either of those two but his lack of international experience has counted against him. Whilst he is expected to start as 3rd choice center back, if he is to get a lucky break and come onto the pitch, expect him to take the opportunity with both hands. Currently rated in the €15m range.

Ioannis Fetfatzidis (Greece)

The miniature midfielder is adept in an attacking role or a place on the wings. He has been playing a central role for Olympiacos during the past two league campaigns. Calls for his inclusion in the Greece starting line-up have been increasing. He already has 3 goals to his name for his country. Nevertheless, he may have to be satisfied with a place on the bench initially, but watch out for his introduction. He faced a similar growth hormone deficiency as Leo Messi.

Calls for the young Greek midfielder to start have been increasing

Claudio Marchisio (Italy)

The Juventus midfielder is known for his goals from midfield. He has consistently improved his tally season on season and finished the recent campaign with 9 goals in Serie A. He is expected to play next to Danielle De Rossi and Andrea Pirlo in central midfield and will be the one Prandelli looks for in making late runs into the box. He will aim to add to his solitary international goal to date.

Ibrahim Afellay (Holland)

Even though Afellay, known as Ibi to his club team-mates, is playing for one of the best club sides around, he has slipped under the radar, so to speak, during the past two seasons. Having joined in hype from PSV Eindhoven, he enjoyed a quiet first 6 months at Barcelona before being ruled out for the majority of the 2011/12 campaign through injury. That may turn out to be a blessing in disguise for Oranje fans and Bert van Maarwijk alike. Afellay has looked fresh and hungry during recent friendlies and has cemented a place in the starting line-up at the likely expense of Dirk Kuyt.

Ludovic Obraniak (Poland)

The French-born Polish international was a Ligue 1 winner with Lille before joining Bordeaux. He is an attacking midfielder who can play on the wings too, although he lacks blistering pace. He has always scored goals at every level and already has 5 goals in twenty-odd internationals. He will be a key creative force for Poland during Euro 2012 and his set piece acumen may be key in deciding how far the Poles can progress.

A former Ligue 1 winner with Lille, Obraniak is one of Poland’s key players

Nelson Oliveira (Portugal)

The young Benfica striker is seen as the most naturally gifted striker to come through the ranks of his country for decades. One of Portugal’s biggest downfalls during the past 20 years has been the lack of a truly world class finisher. Whilst Oliveira is not at that level yet, there is no doubt with his natural instincts for goal-scoring, he may have a good chance at breaking that hoodoo. He is likely to start as a back-up option but with the pressure Paulo Bento is under in the “Group of Death”, Oliveira may find himself on the pitch sooner than he would have imagined.

James McClean (Ireland)

The Sunderland winger has been the wildcard entry into Ireland’s squad. Trapattoni largely stayed loyal to the core of players that helped his side qualify but it was too difficult to neglect McClean’s emergence during the last 5 months of the season. The Italian has tried McClean at left wing during his international debut in May and it is likely that he will provide an option on either wing off the bench.

Roman Shirokov (Russia)

The 30 year old Zenit central midfielder can play as a holding player, deep-lying player or in central defence, although it is likely that he will play in midfield for Russia as he has done throughout his career. What he offers is late runs into the box and an eye for goal. He recently scored 2 goals against Italy in an international friendly in Zurich. As the Russian strikers may have trouble scoring too many goals, it is likely that their progress may depend on players like Shirokov popping up with important goals.

Shirokov is a versatile player who is likely to be a big goal threat wherever he plays

Jordi Alba (Spain)

One of the last truly “unknown” quantities in the Spain national side. The Valencia left-sided player is on Barcelona’s shopping list and is expected to join them later this summer. He is currently valued circa €15m and offers surging runs from a full back position. His defensive capabilities are better than one would expect for someone of his stature and size. He is equally adept at playing on the left wing. He is seen as the long-term replacement for Joan Capdevila at international level.

Ola Toivonen (Sweden)

The Finish-born PSV Eindhoven striker is seen as one of Sweden’s main goal threats. He scored the winner against Holland in the Euro 2012 qualifier which effectively sealed Sweden’s spot in the tournament. It is likely that he will start for his country giving captain Zlatan Ibrahimovic a freer, deeper, play-making role in the side. He has scored 35 goals during his 3 years at PSV.

Andriy Yarmolenko (Ukraine)

The left-footed Dynamo Kiev forward is one his nation’s main goal-threats during Euro 2012. He is able to play a more withdrawn role too. His international scoring record is impressive with 8 goals in 20 matches although he has not scored during his past few games. With the problems Oleh Blokhin is facing with selection in goal, it is likely that players like Yarmolenko and Konoplyanka may have to play at their full potential if Ukraine is to progress from the group stages.

The Ukrainian forward will have to be at his best if Ukraine are to progress to the Quarter Finals

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Case for the Defence: Laurent Koscielny

January 7, 2012 10 comments

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.

Koscielny in a mis-hap leading to Birmingham goal in Carling Cup Final 2011

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.

If Koscielny continues to perform as he has this season then sights like this will be virtually non-existant

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.

What do the Americans Know About Sports?

December 20, 2011 6 comments

A lot, in fact, for us to learn from. The Americans and their sporting culture have been a constant target of ridicule from the European shores for years, never more so than when they actually began to take giant strides in the world of football, or soccer, as they like to call it. You can’t blame the Europeans for feeling protective over a sport which they feel that they’ve earned the right to lead the way in, when it comes to the laws and norms of the game. However, it would be foolish not to look over those shores and learn a thing or two from the Americans. They know what they’re doing and it works too. Now, no one is advising cheerleaders at half-time, even though girls in tight shorts may not be something Sepp Blatter would be against, nor are we suggesting breaking a game of football into quarters, or giving time-outs to teams. Although it would be worth considering that all of the above-mentioned elements of their sports are largely geared towards raising advertising revenue, and hence create money for the networks and teams, something which is a driving motivation for FIFA and UEFA when it comes to making changes to the beautiful game. It is questionable if our football would be better off if any of those revolutionary changes, when a little bit of goal-line technology talk has been the object of resistance by FIFA, over the years, even though it is safe to agree that not only will it not slow down the match in progress, but it would be beneficial in helping to ensure Fair Play, one of the guiding principles that FIFA stands for. Today, we aren’t here to discuss changing our soccer to their football. That’s a debate for another time and place. Today the question is why don’t we analyze our beautiful game as comprehensively as they do their sports?

Sports data and statistics have been a cornerstone of American sporting culture since the very first games of Basketball and Baseball. In fact, supporters test each others knowledge of their sports by reciting seasonal batting averages in baseball, triple-double stats in Basketball (that’s when a player gets double figures in 3 facets of a basketball game, usually points, rebounds and assists), or rushing yards in the NFL. That’s just one set of statistics from each of their three big sports, with no disrespect to Ice Hockey. Their trading cards, similar to Panini sticker albums on these shores, highlight full player statistics on the back-side of the cards, and fans as young as 9 or 10 years old trade and exchange cards simply based upon the players performances in certain statistics. Its embedded into their sporting system from such a young age. How many football supporters would know how much a player ran in the previous match, or how many times a player intercepts the ball in the season or who gives the ball away the most in their side? It’s highly unlikely that many would. But that’s largely through no fault of the supporters. The information has never been available on these shores. That begs a question of why? Sportsmen and women on the North American shores are heavily scrutinized by facts born out of their statistics week in, week out. These stats are available on a multitude of places including the respective leagues official websites among others. But in Europe, this scrutiny is largely based upon “match ratings” given by newspapers or reporters, without really going into much depth of what went into devising those ratings other than the opinion of one person. Pundits on TV also give their opinions but quite a lot of the time, it’s based on a few minutes worth of highlights that has been watched and one or two key incidents during the game.

The range of stats regularly present on the back of a baseball trading card

Today, things are beginning to change, Pro Zone and other similar programs that compile in-depth stats are used by many clubs as a modern tool in analyzing performances. The info is not readily available to the public. Opta joined the public fore and it has helped supporters get closer to the game with the in-depth statistics that it releases, although full access to all its data is not available to the public at any one given time. Most recently, WhoScored joined the fore and they must be commended for providing access to the most in-depth data to the public ever. Anyone, at any time, can access their database and find out random, but integral information, such as who wins the most aerial duels, who has the worst shots on target percentage, and who gives the ball away the most in their side. This has been a giant stride in the right direction for the public, in terms of proper analysis of football. Commentators, pundits and so-called experts would do themselves and their audiences justice by actually referring to this sort of data when they’re undertaking their critiques or commendations, just as their American counterparts do.

Whilst we look forward to more strides being taken in this regard by those who will facilitate the availability of such information, in order to provide better in-depth coverage of fact and opinion in any media of football, we can also confidently state that huge steps have been taken in the last five years in this regard, due to some of the groups mentioned above.

Now, just to make things interesting, with the help of our friends at WhoScored who provide the sort of data needed to compile the below statistics and conclusions, we’ve decided to present to you some lesser known facts, about which players have stood out within in-depth categories and which ones have not in the European season so far, with an American twist. So as they say on those shores, let’s get ready to rumble.

Players playing in Europe’s “Big 5” leagues of England, Spain, Germany, Italy and France (UEFA Rankings) are only considered (All figures are per game):

The Denilson Award for Most Dribbles
Gokhan Tore (Hamburg) 6.1
Leo Messi (Barcelona) 5.4
Ribery (FC Bayern) 4.4

Seven of the top ten dribblers in Europe play in the Bundesliga, who on the back of breaking league attendance records recently and winning an extra Champions League spot from Italy this season, is definitely a league on the up. The Premier League only has one representative in the top 10 and that is Blackburn Rovers Junior Hoilett who averages 3.1 dribbles a game.

Guilty as Inzaghi when it comes to Offsides Award
Di Natale (Udinese) 2.7
Papiss Cisse(Freiburg) 2.6
Calaio (Siena) 2.4

The Premier League, Serie A and Bundesliga each have three men in the top ten of Europe’s most caught offside players. La Liga only has one representative in the top twenty and that is Real Zaragoza’s Portuguese international Helder Postiga (5th overall). Ligue 1’s most impressive striker, Oliver Giroud is also its most caught offside one and he is the only representative of his league in the top twenty.

Most Turnovers (Passing the ball to the opposition)
Adebayor (Tottenham) 3.8
Wright-Phillips(QPR) 3.8
Mouloungui (Nice) 3.4

The tempo of the French and English leagues plays a role in this as 16 of the top twenty players come from these two leagues with Ligue 1 edging it with 9 players. Only one Serie A player makes the top twenty, and that is Mirko Vucinic of Juventus who commits 2.6 turnovers.

Key Passes
Ibrahimovic (Milan) 3.3
Nene (PSG) 3.3
Valbuena (Marseille) 3.1

Some of Europe’s top passers rarely give the ball away, but sometimes they are criticized for playing the ball side-ways or backwards. Whilst it retains possession, it does not penetrate the opposition unlike the top 3 key passers in Europe. However, there will be persistent passers who eventually break down the opposition as they pick and choose when to send across what can be deemed a key pass more carefully. Leo Messi comes in 22nd, Andrea Pirlo comes in 23rd whilst Xavi comes in 27th in the category. Usually, players like these, especially the latter two pull off the key passes when they decide to go for them and the success ratio is higher even though stats are not available as of now to corroborate this. The more direct nature of the Premier League is exhibited by the fact that eight of the top twenty players represent it. Leighton Baines is the only defender in the top 20 with 2.7 key passes per game. It would be worth looking at the number of assists some of those key passes have been converted to. Ibrahimovic has 2 assists all season long, Nene 2, Valbuena 8, Messi 8, Pirlo 4, Xavi 5 and Baines 1.

The Hog the Ball Award for Most Passes
Xavi (Barcelona) 106.7
Xabi Alonso (Real Madrid) 85.9
Schweinsteiger (FC Bayern) 80.6

This was probably the most expected result of any category out there. Barcelona have 4 representatives in the top 20 but it might be news to you that there is a club that has more players in the top twenty, and that club is FC Bayern, with 5. Lahm, Rafinha (FC Bayern)and Dani Alves exhibit the fact that full backs are integral to the modern game with each of them being comfortably placed in the top 20, with the first two averaging just under 80 passes a game. Only four players from the Premier League are found in the top twenty. Not surprisingly, two of them play at Arsenal. Arteta averages 78.7 passes a game is 5th overall, whilst Ramsey and Ashley Williams (Swansea), two Welshmen each average 68.6 passes per game. Yaya Toure is 11th overall and is the 4th Premier League player, averaging just over 70 passes a game.

Most Accurate Passer
Britton (Swansea) 94.2%
Thiago (Barcelona) 93.9%
Xavi (Barcelona) 93.1%

This category coupled with the previous one probably illustrate a better picture when combined. In it, we only considered players who succeed with at least 50 passes a game. Britton leads in the category but he only makes 57.8 passes a game, whilst Thiago achieves 15 more passes a game. Xavi has already been discussed in the previous category. Busquets, Mascherano and Abidal all have pass ratios over 90% and are in the top twenty, whilst succeeding with at least 62 passes per game. The top twenty is dominated by the Premier League and La Liga and interestingly Swansea City have 3 players in it, confirming them as a side that likes to retain possession and pass the ball.

Best Crosser Award
Larsson (Sunderland) 2.8
Cossu (Cagliari) 2.8
Tiffert (Kaiserslautern) 2.6

Seven Premier League players make the top twenty in a league which has traditionally been known to target crosses towards a traditional number 9 playing as center forward. Six Ligue 1 players also find themselves in the top twenty. Interestingly, no La Liga player is in it, as not a single player there makes 2 crosses per game.

Quarterback Award for Most Successful Long Balls
Ter Stegen (Gladbach) 14.1
Hennessy (Wolves) 12.8
Begovic (Stoke) 11.8

As evidenced by the top 3 in this category, goalkeepers largely play the role of the quarterback if you’re looking at long balls completed per game. The highest placed outfield player is Mark van Bommel, in 4th place, with 11.2 long balls per game. Thiago Silva and Pirlo are the next two highest placed outfield players. All in all, six goalkeepers find themselves in the top twenty. Only two La Liga players and 1 Ligue player find themselves there.

Nigel De Jong Award for Best Tackler
Lucas Leiva (Liverpool) 5.7
Hetemaj (Chievo) 5.3
Behrami (Fiorentin) 5.2

Tackling is an art as old as goal-scoring even though it is somewhat not given the exposure or coverage that it deserves. Surprisingly, eight of the top twenty placed tacklers in Europe play in La Liga. 5 play in the Serie A although only one of those players is Italian, Udinese’s Pinzi who is in 10th place with 4.8 tackles per game. Nigel De Jong, the man whose name lies on the award does not even make the top 100 although he hasn’t had enough minutes this season.

Most Interceptions Per Game
Javi Fuego(Rayo) 7.3
Chico (Mallorca) 6.6
Bruno (Villareal)6

This is a category dominated by La Liga who take the top 16 spots and 31 of the top 40. The highest Premier League based player is Stilian Petrov of Aston Villa with 3.5 interceptions, who finds himself in 74th place.

The Hoof the Ball Clear Old-School English Style Award for Most Clearances
Shawcross (Stoke) 12.8
Peybernes (Sochaux) 11.6
Gabbidon (Swansea) 11.3

As tradition would have it, the Premier League is home to the most no nonsense defenders in Europe. The fans love them as much as they love their goalscorers. Four of the top five and seven of the top ten players play in the Premier League. Be it weaker defending or the fact that La Liga is considered to be the most technical league out there at the moment, the league has no player in the top 100 of the category.

The Terry Butcher Award for Bravery AKA Throw your Body in the Way and Block Shots
S. Taylor (Newcaslte 2
Cahill (Bolton) 1.5
A. Williams (Swansea) 1.5

Unsurprisingly, the Premier League provides 10 out of the top twenty in this category, and all of the representatives are British players.

Hang-time 50-50 Award for Most Aerial Duels Won
Crouch (Stoke) 4.7
Pelle (Parma) 4.5
Kabouo (Spurs) 4.5

Unsurprisingly, one of the tallest players in Europe wins the most aerial duels. Even though Peter Crouch has been criticized for being soft in some quarters, he almost always comes out on top when it comes to a 50-50 in the air. Credit must go to Heidar Helguson of QPR who is the only player under 1’85 in the top 10. In fact he is only 1’78 but wins 4.2 aerial duels per game and finishes in 4th spot.

Now onto the most interesting category of the season so far, an All-Defensive Team, a cornerstone of the end of season awards when it comes to the NBA. Usually, an all-star team of the season, gives precedence to the players who shone when it comes to the biggest games, and sometimes reputations win over performances. Attacking stats would definitely be favored in the selection of teams of the season, whichever league they are picked from. This team, however, includes players from every position who guarantee the undertaking of their defensive duties and back it up with the performance stats to prove it (Tackles, Interceptions, Clearanaces, Blocked Shots, Offsides Won, among other criteria). The members of the Defensive Team of the Season, selected from Europe’s top 5 leagues at the half-way mark of the season are as follows:

Line-up: Hart (Man City), Javi Venta (Levante), Lucio (Inter), Mascherano (Barcelona), Campagnaro (Napoli), Fernando Navarro (Sevilla) - Stindl (Hannover), Toulalan (Malaga), Mudingayi (Bologna), Arda Turan (Atletico) - Menez (PSG)

The above players have excelled when it comes to performing their defensive duties, in some cases right from the top of the team. In goal, Joe Hart’s save percentage, as well as shots to goals ratio, goals conceded and clean sheets make him one of the best keepers in Europe. Javi Venta has been instrumental to Levante’s meteoric, if shocking, rise to the top echelon of Spanish football, whilst Mascherano has had an excellent season as a center back. Hugo Campagnaro forms an integral part of Napoli’s back-3, whilst Lars Stindl and Arda Turan have better defensive numbers than many defenders. Jeremy Menez may be criticized for not having the final pass or finish mastered in his repertoire yet, but he puts in a shift and a half when it comes to working hard for his side. Honorable mentions must be made for Lucas Leiva who would have surely made the team had his season not been cut short by injury. Didac and Efrain Juarez of Espanyol and Real Zaragoza respectively also came close to breaking in at full back positions, while Santi Cazorla pushed himself close on either wing. Arsenal’s Laurent Koscielny was also close to breaking into the starting line-up at center back and must surely be considered as one of Europe’s most improved player if such an award existed.