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Messi – How Great?

July 14, 2014 3 comments

Messi Sad

In the aftermath of the 2014 World Cup Finals, there have been two topics on everyone’s lips. Needless to say, the first of these is hailing the German triumph over Argentina in what proved to be a tense and close match-up pitting the tournament’s best two sides. That topic has covered most of the front pages of newspapers and online media alike, and rightly so. However, there has been a second topic, and one that has taken a life of its own. This one has focused on undermining Lionel Messi’s World Cup and general standing in the history of the world’s most popular sport.

To add context to the subject, it is fair to suggest that a large number of experts and non-experts alike (social media has given a voice to the voiceless) had always claimed that to be considered the greatest footballer ever, Messi would have to shine at the World Cup. Most of these people fall into the generation that grew up watching another Argentine legend, Diego Maradona, rather than one which grew up idolizing Pele. Legend has it that Maradona single-handedly, excuse the pun, led the Argentine’s to the trophy in 1986 without the help of a decent set of players around him which included Pumpido, Batista, Burruchaga, Valdano and Ruggeri among others.

Whilst Messi has been the single most dominant player in world football during the last 5 or 6 years, his success both individually and as part of a team has almost entirely happened with his club, Barcelona. The question mark would always hover over the debate as long as Messi did not win the World Cup. Needless to say, Pele largely doesn’t figure in this debate because either “he didn’t play in European football” or he wasn’t alone in leading Brazil to those World Cup titles. Selective criteria does wonders to carve out the results that one is looking for.

So the stage was set for Messi to lead Argentina to the World Cup title in Brazil and cement his position as the undisputed greatest. In the early stages, he did not disappoint. A crucial goal against Bosnia in a tense 2-1 victory, a 90th minute winner against a resilient Iran and a brace against Nigeria in his side’s final group stage game gave Messi 4 goals and the key man behind Argentina’s progress at that stage. In the second round, Messi laid off the assist for Angel Di Maria to score against Switzerland in the last minutes before a potential penalty shoot-out. Against Belgium in the Quarter Finals, Messi produced a tactically astute performance which kept the Belgian defence on their heels throughout the match. However, there was no goal or assist. By the end of the semi-final, the criteria for immortality had been shifted by those posing them. Instead of simply winning the World Cup, Messi now had to do something special, something that I, and many others, were under the impression that he had been doing throughout the World Cup, more or less.

Multiple Ballon D'Ors not enough on their own in settling any doubts over Messi greatness

Multiple Ballon D’Ors not enough on their own in settling any doubts over Messi greatness

There are two explanations for the goal-posts shifting. Firstly, the generational obsession with forwarding one’s own as the greatest of all time poses an insurmountable obstacle. As time passes, legend grows with it too. The emotional connection that is created between idol and object of idolization lasts a lifetime. Secondly, Leo Messi has raised the standards of measurement and analysis to previously unseen levels. Its no longer enough to score a goal, but necessary to put out performances like the famous 4-goal haul in the Champions League against Arsenal regularly. Its no longer sufficient to score 40 goals a season, even though some of the world’s greatest players have never reached that tally, as it would be considered an average or poor season. Those are the criticisms thrown at Messi. Those or simplistic arguments like those put forward, last night during commentary, by BeIN Sports Andy Gray when he stated that he wants to see Messi “move more” and “he doesn’t look happy on the pitch” and “needs to help his defence out”.

Waking up this morning, had you had not watched any of the matches at this summer’s World Cup then you’d be inclined to think that Messi incurred an atrocious World Cup. To add context to the debate, Messi had 4 goals, 3rd in the list after Colombia’s James Rodriguez and Germany’s Thomas Muller. He added 3.3 key passes per game (via WhoScored), only behind Kevin De Bruyne from players who made it past the group stage, equating to 23 clear cut opportunities for teammates, more than any other player, and a World Cup leading 6.6 successful dribbles per game. Despite passing the ball less than Manuel Neuer, a fact widely informed to us today by Castrol Index, he still had more completed passes than either of Arjen Robben or Thomas Muller and averaged more than James Rodriguez or Neymar too. So did Messi have a poor World Cup, like Andy Gray reiterated on numerous occasions during the final? Absolutely not. Was Messi the best player of the tournament? That is probably open to debate, although Robben and Muller definitely had strong cases. James Rodriguez was arguably the type of breakthrough star that the World Cup has had in the past a la Toto Schillachi but his side failed to progress past the Quarter Finals. Neymar may have had a claim if his World Cup had not ended prematurely. Any number of German players could be considered contenders for that pointless award too, but what this World Cup, more than most others in the past, illustrated was the triumph of team over individual. Does it matter who wins the player of the tournament? Does it change anything when all is said and done? Should Messi have been embarrassed, like Gray said he should be, having been selected as the player of the tournament?

All in all, I would like to ask Mr. Gray what criteria he uses to assess players. He’s known to have stated on many occasions in the past that Cristiano Ronaldo is a better player than Leo Messi. To him, I’d like to say that the debate is no longer about Messi or Cristiano, as that train passed a long time ago. It is about Messi or Maradona or Pele. Its unlikely a unanimous or objective conclusion can be reached on this topic. If one factors the importance of the World Cup then Pele is arguably the best player of all time. Winning the World Cup once is one thing but it is not a coincidence that he won it thrice. Maradona’s generation of followers would probably limit the need of winning the World Cup to just one. Messi’s would probably negate it altogether and claim that the Champions League is played at a higher quality each and every season. It may well be. Unfortunately football does not have an easy way of making individuals stand apart from the team. As good as a single player can be, he cannot succeed without the right teammates and manager. This is undebatable. What is certain, though, is that there has never been as much scrutiny, cameras, technology, or analysis involved in football in the history of the game and to stand tall at the end of it all is a feat on its own.

Two of the greatest footballers of all time, Pele and Maradona

Two of the greatest footballers of all time, Pele and Maradona

What this summer’s World Cup did more than anything else is to have re-ignited the passion for the international game. The World Cup does matter. It matters a lot. It is the pinnacle of football. Ask any German footballer if they’d trade last night’s trophy in exchange for multiple Champions Leagues and league titles till the end of their career and the answer would be no. But what that means is that the debate over the greatest footballer of all time will probably remain inconclusive – for now. Simply put, there are far too many variables involved that makes it difficult to conclusively provide a single objective answer. Messi is great. Without a doubt. There will be a generation (this one) that will strongly put forward his case to be the greatest of all time when another contender to the tag comes along in 30 years time. By then, its likely that noises emanating from the Maradona camp would have died down just as had been the case with Pele’s. What we can’t argue about is that we are lucky to be witnessing someone of that caliber play right in front of our eyes, week after week, sometimes twice weekly. Its questionable that even Maradona or Pele’s greatest proponents had the privilege to watch and observe their hero play so often in an era with limited television coverage. Just to be having this debate right now is a testament to Messi’s greatness, barely at the age of 27.

Who is Europe’s Deadliest Finisher?

January 17, 2013 1 comment

Falcao

Barcelona’s Lionel Messi continues to break goal-scoring records by the match. His performances have meant that soon enough there will only be his own records to better rather than that of his predecessors. If it wasn’t for the Argentine, Cristiano Ronaldo’s scoring heroics would have had a more long-term place in the record books. At the same time, both Rademel Falcao and Robin van Persie are virtually scoring at a rate of 2 goals every 3 games. There had been a time when scoring 1 goal every 2 games was considered the target for top strikers all over Europe. However, during the past two seasons, the four aforementioned individuals have really raised the bar when it comes to goal scoring. As silly as this may sound, is that group of four simply the most clinical finishers in football? One would be hard-pressed to bite his lip and take a step back and analyze things closely before answering that.

Methodology

Whilst goals are the single most important measure of a striker’s ability, is it really fair to compare players playing at different clubs, receiving different levels of service and taking a varying amount of shots on goal? In order to fairly assess a striker’s “deadliness” in front of goal, we will take into account two factors. Firstly, we will assess how often the said player has shots on target in respect to the total number of shots he takes. This will reflect their accuracy. Subsequently, we will assess the ratio with which the said player converts the shots on target into goals. Combining the two variables and weighing them according to their importance will provide us with a figure which would reflect their conversion in front of goal. In order retain a level of integrity we will compare strikers across the top four rated leagues in Europe and examine statistics from the 2011/12 season as well as the on-going 2012/13 campaign. We will only consider players who have scored a minimum of 15 league goals during the period in question.

Bear in mind that assessing the difficulty of shooting opportunities no doubt plays a role but due to the intricacy involved and the lack of available data in the public domain, it has not been considered within the methodology of this study. Similarly, one school of thought may suggest that taking into account the amount of time a player’s team is in the opposition’s final third should play an indirect role at the very least. If a player’s side is taking the game to the opposition consistently then the player would be more prepped for taking his chances. However, if the team sits back and hits on the counter then the player’s anticipation and concentration levels must be at a higher than usual level and must be taken into account. This resembles the argument that goalkeeper’s, playing at top clubs, who face one or two opportunities a game must sometimes be heralded as even “better” than a keeper in the thick of the action, due to their higher concentration and motivation levels. But as there is no general consensus on agreeing upon or quantifying this element, it also has been left out, despite having been applied during the research stage of the study. Furthermore, failing to score a certain number of goals at this stage of the current season would count against the culprit, whilst hitting a certain number of shots on target would not go un-noticed.

Ultimately one always wonders how a player would fare had he been receiving the sort of service he would be getting at “insert top of the table club”. The goal of this exercise is to attempt to create a more level playing field when it comes to comparing the finishing ability of players wherever they may be playing.

Bundesliga

The Bundesliga has emerged as one of the most exciting leagues in Europe. An excellent ownership structure, financially sound clubs, rising attendances, consistent success on the pitch as illustrated through its gaining of an additional Champions League spot and some of the best young players in all of Europe are just some of the reasons why. Add to that Pep Guardiola’s decision to take over Bayern Munich next season and its easy to see why the spotlight is firmly on the league.

Two of the top finishers in the Bundesliga side-by-side, Robert Lewandowski and Mario Gomez

Two of the top finishers in the Bundesliga side-by-side, Robert Lewandowski and Mario Gomez

Mario Gomez fulfilled the criteria of the research the best and found himself at the top of the list of clinical finishers in the league over the past 18 months, although his lack of game time this season did count against him on the overall scale of things. In fact, Gomez had the best shots on target ratio between all the players analyzed in all 4 leagues, keeping 59% of his shots on target. His conversion ratio was also impressive, scoring 47% of the time once he had kept the shot on target. Klaas-Jan Huntelaar came second in the Bundesliga, keeping 50% of his shots on target, whilst going on to convert 49% of those chances into goals. However, he has under-performed this season and this counted against him in the final standings. Vedad Ibisevic rounded up the top 3, with Leverkusen’s consistent striker Stefan Keissling coming a close fourth and Robert Lewandowski fifth in the rankings. If the study was simply based upon goals scored then Huntelaar would have finished first, with Lewandowski, and Gomez in second and third place.

Bundesliga Rankings

Serie A

Inter Milan's Diego Milito leads the way in Serie A

Inter Milan’s Diego Milito leads the way in Serie A

In Italy, the man that stood out was Inter Milan’s Argentine striker Diego Milito. He has found a new lease of life during the past 18 months and converted an outstanding 56% of his shots on target into goals. In simple terms, as long as Milito keeps the shot on target then more likely than not he will score. He is 1 of only 2 players in Europe to have that sort of record. Edinson Cavani came in second overall with 46% of his shots on target and 48% of those shots on target converted. Miroslav Klose finished third, converting 49% of his shots on target into goals. Udinese stalwart, Antonio “Toto” Di Natale suprisingly finished a lowly seventh, despite scoring 37 goals during the past 18 months. This was largely due to the fact that he converts a lowly 34% of his on-target shots into goals.

Serie A Rankings

Premier League

Manchester United's Javier Hernandez has an impressive finishing ratio

Manchester United’s Javier Hernandez has an impressive finishing ratio

In England, only three of the final nominees break the 50% barrier when it comes to keeping shots on target and they are led by a Manchester United goal-scoring hero. Surprisingly, it is not the United striker you are thinking about. It isn’t even the second United striker that you’re thinking of. It’s Mexican super-sub Javier Hernandez. Chicharito keeps 52% of his shots on target and subsequently goes on to convert 46% of them. Chelsea’s Frank Lampard is the most impressive midfielder in between all the players assessed within any of the leagues. He converts 49% of the chances that he has kept on target. Sunderland’s Steven Fletcher and Swansea’s Spanish talisman Michu fall into the next slots just ahead of Manchester City’s Edin Dzeko who edges in ahead of van Persie, largely due to the fact that he converts a slightly higher percentage of his shots on target into goals. You might be surprised that players like Chelsea’s newly signed Senegalese striker, Dembe Ba, do not possess as good a conversion rate as you would have thought. Ba only converts 35% of his shots on target into goals, a similar figure to England’s Wayne Rooney, although that is still ahead of Fernando Torres who converts only 28% of his shots on target. The Spaniard has the lowest conversion rate between all the players assessed and that reflects some of his tame finishing even when the shots are on target and “test” the opposition goalkeeper.

Liverpool's Daniel Sturridge needs to work on his finishing if others are to accept his own belief that he's a central striker

Liverpool’s Daniel Sturridge needs to work on his finishing if others are to accept his own belief that he’s a central striker

Liverpool’s Luis Suarez fares even worse than Torres on the overall scheme of things as he only keeps 36% of his shots on target, going on to convert 31% of those into goals. Other players who don’t make the list partly because they failed to hit 15 goals during the period include two English strikers, Danny Welbeck and Daniel Sturridge. Welbeck keeps 41% of his shots on target but only converts 23% of those into goals. Sturridge, who considers himself a center forward keeps 36% of his shots on target and goes on to convert 34% of those opportunities into actual goals.

Premier League Rankings

La Liga

Leo Messi maintains an incredible accuracy and conversion ratio despite taking over 300 shots

Leo Messi maintains an incredible accuracy and conversion ratio despite taking over 300 shots

Last but not least, Spain’s La Liga is home to Europe’s most clinical striker and needless to say he’s Argentine. Chances are 95% of you just named the wrong player. Lionel Messi only comes in second in La Liga’s rankings well behind his compatriot Gonzalo Higuain. Real Madrid’s Higuain is one of only two players in all of Europe who convert into goals more than 50% of the shots they had kept on target. The other, of course, was listed earlier and was Inter’s Diego Milito. Higuain betters Milito’s conversion rate as he scores an incredible 59% of shots that have been kept on target. Lionel Messi comes in second, keeping 56% of his shots on target. What makes that rate even more impressive is the fact that he’s taken over 300 shots in compiling that percentage. His conversion ratio stands at 46% which is still among the highest in Europe, and considering the range of shots he takes might be a little undervalued. Roberto Soldado and Falcao follow in the next two spots. Both have proven to be consistent goal scorers in recent years wherever they have played. Soldado converts 47% of his shots on target into goals, a rate better than four-time Ballon D’Or winner Messi. Cristiano Ronaldo does feature on the list however his numbers are not as impressive as one may have thought. He keeps 44% of his shots on target, no doubt hindered by the fact that he takes so many long range shots. He goes on to convert 35% of his shots on target into goals, possibly slightly hindered by the previous fact again. In terms of midfielders, Barcelona’s Cesc Fabregas has impressive numbers. He keeps 56% of his shots on target, and goes on to convert 38% of them into goals.

La Liga Rankings

The Results

Now comes the interesting part where all the numbers are crunched into the formula in order to produce the results. As stated earlier, each factor is giving a weighing variable, and there are points to be gained and lost for the number of shots taken as well as failure to hit certain targets in the current season in order to provide as much balance as possible.

The Top 35

1 till 14

Gonzalo Higuain is by far the most clinical finisher in Europe's top 4 leagues

Gonzalo Higuain is by far the most clinical finisher in Europe’s top 4 leagues

15 till 28

29 till 35

As evident above, Gonzalo Higuain is the undisputed king when it comes to being clinical, finishing on 90 points (from 100). What is telling is that 3 of the top 4 are Argentines, firmly giving the national side a potency that makes them among the favorites to lift the upcoming World Cup in Brazil next year. Mario Gomez (79 points) splits Milito (82) and Messi (78). Although it must be said as the season goes on if Gomez fails to recover from injury he will undoubtedly lose his spot to Messi, even if the Argentine continues at exactly the same ratio as he’s performing.

Whilst the analysis takes into account the factors illustrated above, it has laid the groundwork for more intense research in the future. It is recommended to weigh the difficulty of the type of shots each player has taken.

A special thanks to for his mathematical and football insight.

Watch The Throne: Barça’s New Guardi-an

May 3, 2012 1 comment

Disclaimer: I really don’t know what will happen next season. Tito Vilanova’s reign at Barcelona might end in utter disaster after a 5-0 defeat to Real Madrid in the first Clasico of the season and Sandro Rosell’s supposed dream might come true and “Big Phil” Scolari will take over on an interim basis until Muricy Ramalho becomes Barça coach in 2013, bringing in Neymar and Paulo Ganso as key signings, as Big Phil moves upstairs as Sporting Director. It might also end at the other end of the spectrum and Tito may become even more successful than Pep Guardiola ever was, if “bettering” his era is even remotely possible. This article is not a prophecy or prediction, but will try to objectively analyze why Tito Vilanova was appointed over candidates such as Ernesto Valverde or André Villas-Boas in a decision that no one, other than Pep, Andoni Zubizaretta and Rosell, knew about. 

FC Barcelona took an extraordinary decision this week to replace their most successful coach in history with Tito Vilanova, someone who hasn’t coached a top division club anywhere ever. The decision is further surprising because it was stated, in the Spanish press, that one of the reasons pushing Guardiola to resign at the end of the season was Vilanova’s health. Tito had a tumor removed from his mouth and therefore his health was always a lingering issue over the season. As an example, he couldn’t join the team on their trip to Japan for the Club World Cup. However, looking towards the challenges ahead, which Barcelona face in replacing Pep Guardiola whilst maintaining their winning and convincing* form of the previous years, this decision makes more sense.

There are 3 pillars to Barcelona’s success over the short and long term future:

1) Make sure Lionel Messi stays happy

After the Champions League Final in 2011, Guardiola was asked about how Barcelona can continue their success and maintain Messi’s excellence. His answer was short and precise, “make sure he is happy”. Messi might be a genius, arguably the best player over the past 20 years, one of the all time greats and deserving of all the plaudits you read every week. However, Messi is also a “difficult” character. The difficulty comes from him being a very introverted person, who does not speak too much and his silence, not from his motivation for football or anything specific in particular. If Messi doesn’t feel well mentally, or he is not happy, or is frustrated as evident once in a while on the pitch, he won’t perform. There have been actions taken by the club in order to make Messi happy. Signing Javier Mascherano and the contract extension given to Gaby Milito are two clear examples, but the signings of his old friends Gerard Pique and Cesc Fabregas might have also been motivated by keeping Messi happy. Whoever was going to replace Guardiola would have needed to understand Messi and make sure he can get the maximum out of him. There might just be no one better to do this than the guy who knows him longest, the guy who coached him(as well as Cesc and Pique) when he was 14 years old and the person who was first to know about Messi’s goalscoring abilities. Maybe both Valverde and Villas-Boas would have been able to get along with Messi as well, but there’s almost a guarantee that Messi won’t have problems with Tito Vilanova.

Messi, Cesc and Pique, during their time under Tito Vilanova, as youngsters

2) Make sure success-ion and the La Masia philosophy continues

A lot of key players at Barça are coming into the twilight of their career, notably Puyol and Xavi. A couple of players are entering the best years of their career, Fabregas and Pique being the examples. There’s also a great generation of Masia “products” coming through the ranks or already there, notably Thiago Alcantara, Marc Muniesa, Marc Bartra and Sergi Roberto. The idea of succession, bringing up players through the ranks, as well as the idea that the current playing philosophy the team upholds continue are key to the future success of the brand/sect/club called FC Barcelona. It’s arguable whether this is good or bad. Some might have the idea that football needs new influences and not altering your formula and relying too much on similar players is a mistake. However, this would ignore the fact that all of the players coming through from La Masia are different in one way or another. Sergi Roberto, for instance, is not the next Xavi or Fabregas, as he plays much more direct, is more a threat from the second line and prefers to move with the ball at his feet more than in any other way. If we take the recent examples of wingers coming through the ranks, Tello is not Cuenca and neither of them is Pedro, but they are all different players with different characteristics. The key to a successful La Masia policy is to know the players coming through, their characteristics as well as the needs of the first team squad in terms of which type of player should be integrated in order to add something new and different.

The La Masia policy wouldn’t work and make sense if Barcelona would allow players without the necessary quality to play just because they are from the youth ranks. It would put the whole policy in jeopardy. Instead, the key is to know which players have the necessary quality and which positions need to be filled from outside. That will only work with a coach who works for the long-term even, over the short-term period (as all coaching periods are these days), and who knows the youth teams well. While AVB seemed to know the Barcelona youth teams too, as his signing of Oriol Romeu suggests, he might have given up long-term interest over the short-term future of the club and went for the easy way, especially given the fact that he was burned once by following the alternative during his experience at Chelsea.

Young Tito and Young Pep in their early La Masia days

Finally, in Cesc and Pique, there are two players who are the natural successors of Puyol and Xavi both on and off the pitch, despite having different characteristics, again both on and off the field. With Cesc and Pique, the key will be to involve them more in the squad and simply load more responsibility onto them. Pique might be seen as some kind of rich celebrity party boy, but his passion for the club, his position as a team leader and his competitiveness are also beyond any doubt. Again, maybe the best idea would be to make sure the guy who knows La Masia and La Masia graduates best do the job.

3) Keep Guardiola at the club

How do you keep Pep at the club without him actually being at the club? You could replace him with his footballing twin brother. Guardiola and Vilanova share the same footballing ideas and philosophy, with the main difference being Vilanova seems more calm and relaxed. Guardiola is the Barcelona player who has been sent off more than any other other but not because of tackles but rather largely for arguing with referees and getting sent off for dissent. Vilanova, as his interviews, behavior and body language suggest, is much calmer than Pep, except maybe when he faces Jose Mourinho’s finger. This might have been a problem if Barcelona players needed motivation or a strong hand to accept the leadership of the coach, but remember that they have already been convinced and converted to the “Barcelona belief” by Pep. Tito doesn’t need to do anything in that respect, but what he needs to do is to guide the ship and keep the footballing ideas of Pep alive. In theory, he should have very little of the usual problems assistant managers have when they need to replace the first team coach with regards to respect and authority. So again, Vilanova, more than anyone else, makes sense in terms of an appointment. Furthermore, since he appears to be a much more calm and collected person, maybe that’s exactly the Guardiola version the team now needs. Maybe the players would do well with a manager who keeps the tactical and ideological approach but is a bit less tense, which Guardiola was, especially over the 2011/12 season.

Tito and Pep preside over their success in their treble-winning season (Picture by Miguel Ruiz for FCB)

With all that said, success for Vilanova is far from guaranteed, failure might lead to an implosion and Barcelona returning to their turn of the century self or even worse, to the eighties era. One should be aware that Barça is a snakes-pit with lots of vested interests by different groups and while battling a Madrid empire with all their media power is already difficult and tiresome, Barcelona has its fair share of internal strife and enemies through different political groups, such as Group Godo, a powerful media group in Catalonia, who have their own interests to follow and want their share of the power. Guardiola not only had to fight Madrid and the Madrid press, who he called “Central Lechera”, but he also had enough internal enemies in Catalonia, people who, during his time as a player, came up with rumors about his sexuality and ran stories about him being HIV positive. Tito Vilanova has a huge task coming up and it’s far from easy. However, he can be sure of the support of his Sporting Director and the whole squad. He is assured the moral support of Pep and he knows himself that he doesn’t have to change too much from the current squad and that no one expects radical changes as a tool to cement his own legacy, something Villas-Boas tried to do and failed at. After all, Tito is Pep’s twin brother and no one expects him to be anyone else.

*As they say in Spain, it’s not only about winning(vencer) but convincing(convencer) people of your superiority and style. For Barcelona, the second has always been as important as the first, as there is no winning without convincing. This might also have been the explanation as to why the Madrid press and Real Madrid are particularly hostile over recent years towards Barcelona and run ridiculous amounts of conspiracy theories.

If you like the authors work please

Further reading:

In general, Marti Perarnau is not only one of the best Spanish journalists, but also the best source anywhere with regards to information about Barcelona. His article on Cesc and why his signing was done can be found here(although only in Spanish). It’s highly recommended to visit his blog, also only in Spanish.

A good article by Simon Kuper on some tactical aspects of Barcelona

An old article by Pep Guardiola in El Pais from 2007 that was only about a cup game in a lousy season but that explains the importance of “feeling” and knowing the history and what to play for

Jonathan Wilson on why great teams come to an end for the Guardian

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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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.

Don’t Write Off Captain Caveman

December 11, 2011 1 comment

As the dust settles on the first league Clasico of the season, one would urge caution before suggesting that Barcelona had dealt a knockout blow to Real Madrid’s title challenge. Nevertheless, Pep Guardiola tactically out-maneuvered the grim-faced Jose Mourinho, who lamented the lack of luck at key points of the match-up last night. Yes, at 1-0, Cristiano Ronaldo had time & space to slot home a shot, when he instead miscued a shot well wide & over the bar. Early in the second half, Ronaldo headed wide from a poor Barcelona attempt at an off-side trap off a cross. We’ve seen Ronaldo finish those opportunities with eyes closed, when the opposition isnt Barcelona. But it would be a dis-service to the Liga champions to suggest that Real Madrid’s misses handed Barcelona the victory.

Whilst Mourinho was brave to select Ozil to play in the 4-2-3-1 that he set up (when Karanka had suggested that RM would definitely play with a 4-3-3), the selection backfired. Ozil was rarely in the game, and could not get the better of Busquets who played an integral role both as a forward-moving center back, having started off in his usual anchor role. Even when Busquets dropped into CB, Ozil failed to take advantage. How much of a difference would Khedira have made from the start? That leads us to the second factor that helped Barcelona and that was the movement of Lionel Messi. He was not picked up by Real Madrid players & had no man-marker. When Barcelona were still finding their feet in the first half, Messi dropped deeper & deeper began to carry the ball forward & that helped his side settle. One of those mazy runs saw him slip through Alexis Sanchez who scored with what was a much more difficult finish than you would think.

Another interesting decision was the selection of Coentrao at right back. The idea was a left-sided player going up against a Barcelona attacker turning in-field. Initially it looked to be paying off, but Coentrao’s lack of familiarity with the role may have meant he played Alexis Sanchez onside for Barcelona’s first goal. Even though he had the better of Iniesta in the first half that was a crucial mistake. As the game wore on, Iniesta took on & beat Coentrao at will & was arguably Barcelona’s most impressive offensive player.

Real Madrid had set up to play a high intensity pressing game & that was evident from the first minute. Despite being a factor in their first goal, Barcelona remained patient at the back & continued to play what looked like risky passes to mere human viewers. They stuck to their philosophy when our inner voice was shouting out “hoof it, hoof it”. Victor Valdes got a lot of praise from Guardiola for showing “balls” & continuing to play short passes even after his mistakes in the first half. Despite giving up possession a few times due to the pressure, the Barcelona defence settled just as Real Madrid conceded the first goal, which came right at the time when Barcelona was turning the tide. Real Madrid began to reduce the intensity of their pressing, seemingly as part of their tactical plan for the match. Who could keep that pace up for 90 minutes without tiring? But one tactical reshuffle aided in getting Barcelona’s foot back into the game & alleviating a little bit of pressure on the Catalan side’s defence. Guardiola switched what looked like a back-4 to a back-3 plus Busquets who would drop into the center back role, pushing Pique to the right-sided center back, & returning captain Puyol to right back. This meant Dani Alves moved ahead into a right-wing position. The consequences of this were multi-fold.

Close but not Close Enough

Firstly, Puyol would face Ronaldo in one-on-one positions and he would get the better of him on every single occassion, stifling Ronaldo & frustrating him into a disillusioned figure. With Dani Alves moving forward, it forced the Real Madrid “attack” to think more about defending & dropping a little back. It was largely in the second half that the value of this tactical change provided an offensive result & that was when spaces opened up & Alves began sending delicious crosses towards the far post, one of which resulted in a Barcelona goal. Secondly, Busquets would drop into the center back role & have more time/space to spray the ball around. Initially, the move had defensive fruits as he was more disciplined & restricted in his movement but as Barcelona got their equalizer, Busquets began to position himself a little higher too. In the second half, he was virtually back to his original position as Barcelona almost exclusively looked like they had been playing with a back-3. Finally, the move allowed Fabregas to actually get into the game by dropping in as more of an orthodox central midfielder next to Xavi. Consequently, Xavi found himself moving forward, providing more of the forward runs which we are more accustomed to from Iniesta.

So what have we learnt from El Clasico?

  1. Mourinho probably second-guessed himself once again & this was evident in the tactics he set up
  2. Real Madrid cannot integrate the high-intensity pressing game for as long as they need to
  3. One step ahead, two steps back…Did Real Madrid look “closer” to Barcelona during the early season Super Cup? It’s quite likely that they looked more dangerous & could have easily won that title, but then again that was a Barcelona team that was physically about 2 weeks behind the RM preparations
  4. Pep Guardiola loves to change things on the go. The amount of times Barcelona’s movement & shaped changed during the game, whilst RM remained rigid & disciplined defines both the respective coaches approaches & styles. Pique said after the game that Barcelona were supposed to play with 3 at the back but RM’s pressure meant they werent able to until the 10th minute of the match
  5. Cristiano Ronaldo does not perform in big games as much as he should for someone of his stature. Messi brings much more than goals to this Barcelona team. Once again he played a crucial role just as he did last season during the Clasico series
  6. Puyol is a rock at the back of the defence & Barcelona never lose with him in the side. Well, almost never. He produced a defensive masterclass reminiscent of Fabio Cannavaro, the 2006 WC version & not the Real Madrid one. He stifled Ronaldo in every 1 on 1 situation, cleared crosses into the box, cleared the ball with his head, organized & disciplined Pique when he had to, & didnt give a foul away in the process & all this with lingering doubts over his fitness & future. What is clear is that Barcelona is a different side with him at the back. Had he not been playing last night, despite all the tactical talk above, it would not be far fetched to say Barcelona would not have won. A 10/10 performance for the captain

Mourinho Pondering What's Next

What happens next?

Well if you are Barcelona, you head to Japan to win the World Club Cup. But if you are Jose Mourinho, you have to pick up a dejected-looking set of players & re-inject self belief into them. But that will be easier said than done. RM were driven by the belief that they were as close to Barcelona as they had ever been & privately may have thought that they were, on form, the better side going into the Santiago Bernebau. But being walked off the park at home, especially in the second half, how do you tell those players that they are not inferior to their Barcelona counterparts? Whilst the defeat cost RM 3 points (arguably 4 with the head to head rules & away win for Barcelona), the real decisive factors in determining the champions will be who slips up in “other” games. Luckily for RM, they only have 1 league game before the winter break. Unfortunately, its at Sevilla, one of the harder grounds to go to. Failure to win that game & the sucker punch from last night could be turned into something much bigger.