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Premier League Miscalculates Value of Europa League

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

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

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

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

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

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The Final 10 Minutes: An Analysis

bayern man utd 1999

Football is a game of two halves. This truism is one of the oldest cliches associated with the beautiful game. Some experts suggest how teams start every match sets the tempo for the rest of the game. Whilst that may be true, it may be interesting to look at how teams finish matches. When one thinks back of how important the final 10 minutes of any given match can be, then the most startling advert for the fact is undoubtedly the 1999 Champions League Final, when Manchester United scored twice in second half injury time to beat the Germans.

During analysis of the final few minutes of matches over a season, it’s fair to ask yourself whether you think results would mirror the strength of the teams without setting new patterns other than that which has been created over the previous 80 minutes of the match. What will it tell us about the mentality and personality of the sides involved? Is the destiny of games determined by the previous 80 minutes? These are some of the questions which we hope to answer by putting the magnifying glass over a few of Europe’s tightest leagues during the current 2012/13 season.

Firstly, the English Premier League will be analyzed, considering the tight race for Champions League spots as well as the scrap for relegation. Secondly, Serie A will be put under the eye of observation. Finally, the nPower Chanmpionship, the second tier of English football, traditionally seen as one of the most challenging leagues in all of European football will be analyzed largely due to its extremely tight proceedings this season. Currently, the team in 8th spot, Derby County, is still not safe from relegation, as its 5 points clear from 22nd spot, the final relegation spot, occupied by Huddersfield (only on goal difference being the worst of a set of 4 sides going up to 19th place Blackburn Rovers). On a side note, 54 points separate the top and bottom sides in the Premier League, with 47 separating those in Serie A and only 38 points keeping the respective sides in the nPower Championship apart.

Premier League

The 2012/13 Premier League season has seen Manchester United wrestle back the title from city rivals Manchester City in what looks like a relatively early triumph. Critics argue that Roberto Mancini’s side failed to show the motivation and drive required to repeat their achievement of the previous season. This could also be the season which could see Premier League ever-presents Aston Villa suffer relegation. Continuing its seasonal pattern, Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal is fighting to win its own Champions League, the coveted 4th position.

How much would the league table change if the full-time whistle was blown in the 80th minute? Some of the findings are riveting to say the least. First of all, a total of 56 results have changed during the final 10 minutes of games (plus stoppage time) this season. That means 18.3% of games have been decided during those minutes. Other startling facts include West Brom being the only side to twice throw away victories and accept defeats during this period, Everton have turned defeat into victory and vice versa on one occasion each, Newcastle has seen results change in 10 of their 31 matches during the final 10 minutes, an astonishing 32% of their games, with Reading experiencing a similar turnaround. Man City have recovered the most points (12) during this period, whilst West Brom have lost the most (9). Also, Swansea are the only side that has not surrendered a single point during the final 10 minutes of matches and QPR the only side that has not recovered any point during the same period.

Considering that Man City has won 12 points (4 draws to wins, 1 loss to a win, 1 loss to a draw) how does the claim that Mancini’s side haven’t shown the same urgency they had last season fare? Clearly, they have exhibited a never say die attitude and good levels of concentration as they have only once lost points during the final stretch this season. Reading and Norwich are two other sides that had 180 degree turns on results gained, by converting lost games into victories once each. Spurs has lost a game that it had been winning after 80 minutes. If you’re looking to switch off your TV after 80 minutes without wanting to worry about missing anything then its likely that you can do so during a Sunderland – QPR game or a West Ham – QPR match-up. Only a total of 7 points has moved around during those between the sides involved throughout the whole season.

Premier League 80 Minutes Table

The table above shows if the final whistle was blown early, the biggest loser in the Premier League would be Manchester City. This may suggest that they have started slowly and sluggishly and a sense of urgency crept into their game as the match went on, especially in the second half of games. Ultimately, they would have found themselves in 5th place, fighting to get into the Champions League. At the other end of the table, Newcastle would have found themselves firmly in the relegation zone had it not been for their late game heroics. How long could they sustain such late surges before it catches up with them though? Their overall performances may yet prove to be costly at the end of the season. Other highlights are Spurs being in 2nd place, Arsenal being in 7th spot and unlikely to get into the Champions League whilst QPR only being 2 points off safety.

Serie A

Juventus have not been as dominant as they were during their unbeaten title victory in the 2011/12 season. Some analysts have said that this was Napoli’s season to win but they have thrown it away having failed to capitalize on the leader’s blunders. In terms of the overall scope of the league, a total of 51 results changed during the final 10 minutes of matches. That translates to 17% of matches being decided during the said period, a slightly lesser ratio than in the Premier League, and probably indicative of the nature of Serie A.

Some of the findings from Serie A include the fact that Juventus have not surrendered a single point during the final stretch of matches and have won back the most points (12). Napoli have seen 9 results change during the final 10 minutes, the most in the whole league, and this includes converting a defeat into victory as well as seeing a win turn into a loss. Only two other sides have experienced such ecstasy (Bologna) and despair (Torino) this season and both in games against Napoli. The biggest losers of the final few minutes of games have been Palermo. They have surrendered 12 points and have only taken 1 point off their opponents during the closing stages of games.

If you’re looking to switch off your TV after 80 minutes then you’d be safest doing so during a Sampdoria – Siena match-up. Compared to the Premier League, only two matches saw 180 degree result turns during the final 10 minutes, whereas in the Premier League four matches saw similar turnarounds.

Serie A 80 Minutes Table

What we learn from the above table is that Napoli would currently be leading the Serie A title race despite having a mixed record during the final 10 minutes of games. This is largely because their rivals Juventus have amassed 5 wins (converted from draws) during the final few minutes of games. Milan and Chievo are two other sides that have not relinquished any points during the final few minutes of games. Palermo, whose fortunes would be much the richer if officials blew the whistle at the end of 80 minutes, would have been 5 points above the relegation zone, virtually safe by now, instead of being firm candidates to go down to Serie B. Milan and Fiorentina would be having a much closer race for the final Champions League spot too, and Catania would be another “winner” as they would be on the verge of a European spot.

nPower Championship

The Championship might prove to be the most exciting league in Europe if it comes down to how matches finish. A total of 99 results changed during the final 10 minutes of games. That is just over a staggering 25% of all games till date. Blackpool have been the undoubted kings of finishing off games strongly. They have “won” 15 points whilst only giving up 3 points during the final few minutes of matches. Cardiff City is another side that finishes games strongly, winning 4 games from drawing positions and drawing 2 games from losing positions. They have not given up points during the same period. Charlton’S games have the quietest finish when it comes to impacting the result. Only twice have they seen results change and both times it has been to their detriment. Leeds United have been one of the undoubted big losers when it comes to the analysis. Ten of their games have changed results during the final 10 minutes and only once has it been to their benefit. Crystal Palace, Blackpool, Ipswich and Bolton have seen 12 results each change during the period in question. That is just under 1 in 3 matches. At the same time, a total of 5 matches have seen 180 degree turnarounds for the sides involved (losses to wins).

nPower Championship 80 Minutes Table

What quickly transpires from looking at the table is that if the final few minutes of matches were not factored in, the whole complexion of the league would change. Firstly, four points would separate the top 4 with Watford benefiting most as they would sit at the top of the pile. Gianfranco Zola’s side have seen 18 points thrown around during the final few minutes of games and that is a league high. They would gain 5 points through the process. Leeds may have been the big losers when it comes to closing out games but that translates to benefiting from the projected league table as they would break into the play-off positions. Crystal Palace have lost the most points during the final few minutes, and despite having won quite a few themselves, they would jump into the 2nd automatic promotion spot.

What is even more interesting is the bottom of the table shake-up. Blackpool nosedive into 23rd position and would likely be relegated had it not been for their closing out of matches. Interestingly, Ian Holloway has had a stake in two of the most “active” sides in the division during the analysis period as the Tangerines are his former side, and Palace his current one. Make of that what you will. Peterbrough would be another beneficiary of the projection as they would jump to 9 points above the relegation zone. Blackburn, Ipswich and Wolves would also look to be quite safe.

Talking Points

Whilst the above analysis proves interesting reading, what conclusions can we draw? Firstly, its clear that the Championship is the most exciting league between the 3 in question when it comes to how important the final 10 minutes of games are. Secondly, there is no clear pattern in terms of the final 10 minutes of games correlating with the previous 80 minutes of the respective games. Whilst teams like Manchester City, Manchester United, Juventus and Cardiff close out games strongly especially when they need a result, other sides near the top of the table have mixed results. Spurs, Chelsea and Everton are 3 of the top 6 in the Premier League but they have lost more points than gained during the period in question. However, in Italy, the current positions of the side have a greater influence in how they finish games with Fiorentina being the only side, which has lost more points than won, in the top 7 of Serie A. In the Championship, perhaps due to the openness and end-to-end nature of the British game, there is a mixed bag again with 2 of the top 4 having lost more points than won.

Then there are a few anomalies to look at. This includes Newcastle, Blackpool and Palermo. The Geordies are currently surviving due to their last few minute heroics having won 6 extra points (net). Blackpool are currently 3 points off the relegation zone in the Championship but this is only because of the extraordinary 15 points that they have won during that period. They have only lost 3 points too. Effectively their numbers along with those of Juventus are the best in our study. What does that tell us about Blackpool? Whilst it needs further analysis of the games, one possible scenario sees teams sitting back deeper against what they perceive to be a bottom of the table side whilst the gung-ho nature of the Tangerines, born out of Ian Holloway’s image creates enough chances to convert. Teams like Crystal Palace, Leeds and Watford do not seem to have the tactical aptitude to close out games. Palace and Watford are both known to play expansive football and the high-tempo could prove to be costly towards the end of games. On the other side of the coin, Italian Serie A strugglers Palermo need to close up shop much better and working on the players fitness could be an aspect that may require further attention. The fruits of this research lay the groundwork which could be instrumental for the sides involved in gaining extra points in the future, either by working at closing out games better or taking advantage of their opponents inability to do the same.

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.

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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Parachuting into Defence: The Busquets Role

April 4, 2012 11 comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Strongest League in Europe: Relationship between Spending and European Success

February 18, 2012 2 comments

When it comes to debating which of Europe’s football leagues is the “best”, there is never likely to be widespread consensus. Supporters of clubs in each of Europe’s top leagues, especially in Spain, England and Italy will be advocates for their leagues. Supporters in Germany would argue back that theirs is the most competitive. Supporters in France may argue back that there’s is the most open league. A choice of words could tip the argument on its head. From best to strongest, to most competitive, to most entertaining, advocates of each league will be able to have their way one way or the other. We don’t want to get involved in a subjective discussion about the merits of each league.

For our purposes, we will establish that strength is largely, if not wholly, indicated through success. Let’s not lose sight of the fact that the most telling indicator, and, importantly, only time when “leagues” come up against each other is during European football, in either the UEFA Champions League or UEFA Europa League. Whilst, this may be subject to fluke or one-off results, over a period of years, a pattern or trend, which would be hard to dispute, would emerge. It is quite straightforward to highlight Europe’s “strongest” league through these parameters during respective eras of European football. That is not what we are trying to do, although, nevertheless it would, naturally, be highlighted during the course of the article.

Success does not necessarily begin and end with the lifting of the Champions League, but the overall performances of clubs in European competition. This season’s Champions League has seen critics of the Premier League highlight the plight of the English sides in Europe. Most people claim to have seen this coming for a few years. Others state that it is just a blip and things will be back to business as usual next season. However, in order to understand why there has been a fluctuation of “strength” in some of Europe’s top leagues, namely the Premier League, Serie A, La Liga, Bundesliga, Ligue 1 and the Eredivisie, we have looked at the relationship between spending and European performance since the 2002/3 season in order to draw potential conclusions or even parallels.

Spend the Money

Since the 2002/3 season, the English Premier League has been the biggest spending football league in the whole world let alone between the 6 leagues that we’ve analyzed. It has spent €6 billion, which is almost twice as much as the next biggest spenders, the Serie A. Needless to say, the Premier League has spent far more money than it has recouped in each of the seasons in question. La Liga and the Bundesliga are the other two leagues who have spent more than they’ve received each and every season during our analysis. Ligue 1 has made a profit in 6 of the 10 seasons at hand, whilst, the Eredivisie has made a loss only once, during the first season of the period. Serie A provides us with one of the most interesting patterns which we will go into further depth later during the article. It made significant profits between 2002/3 and 2004/5, coinciding with the period where superstars left Italy to play in Spain and England, as clubs faced financial constraints and bankruptcy, only to be hit with the Calciopoli scandal in 2006, which further damaged Italian football.

Some other interesting patterns that emerge include the Premier League’s increased spending season on season from 2002/3 until 2007/8, when it almost hit €1 billion. It then experienced back to back drops until a “resurrection”, during the 2010/11 season, was followed by another drop in spending during the current campaign. Another interesting development is that Serie A has out-spent La Liga during each of the past four seasons. Serie A and Ligue 1 are the only two leagues that did not experience their biggest spending seasons in 2007/8. The Italians broke their spending record during the current campaign.

The amount of money spent cannot illustrate, on its own, the pattern a league takes during a period of time. It would also be helpful to look at the “migration flows” into and out of the leagues in question. We’ve analyzed whether there was an influx or outflow of players during each season. Some of the telling points we’ve come across have included the fact that the Serie A has largely seen an outflow of players into other leagues, until the current season when it hit record numbers of bringing in players in a season. Serie A “bought” 231 more players than it transferred out of the league this season. This is the first time an influx has been in three digits in any of the leagues. What this demonstrates is that the Serie A has looked into making up for “lost time” as well as its previous dormant period by competing with the other big leagues for big players. It had seen more players leave than enter the league during the preceding 5 seasons. There is far more balance when it comes to the other leagues from season to season as visible from the table below.

Where the Money Goes

Having established which leagues have been spending the money during the last decade, as well as establishing the influx/outflow ratios during the said period, it may be pertinent to fill in the final piece of that picture by looking at where the money is going to as well as where the players are coming from.

The English Premier League, unsurprisingly, has a trade “deficit” with the other 5 leagues when it comes to dealing in transfers to and from. The intake from Spain to England is the most lucrative across Europe with the move across the Channel from France to the Premier League being the second most lucrative. La Liga follows in third place with its intake from the Premier League which comes in third in the overall table. The Italians love to shop in Spain, spending more in La Liga than anywhere else, but the Spaniards almost reciprocate that spending and the trade stands at parity. The Bundesliga’s favorite hunting ground is the Serie A whilst the Dutch-English and French-English provide the least balanced trade relationships.

In terms of numbers, more players move from Ligue 1 to the Premier League than through any other path. A close second is the players moving from Argentina to La Liga, followed by from Portugal to Spain.

Reap the Rewards?

When it comes to tasting consistent “success” in European football, the last decade has largely been dominated by English and Spanish clubs. The tables below highlight UEFA European co-efficient points per season as well as rankings from 2002/3 till the current, on-going, season. During that period, the Premier League has finished as the best performing “league” in European competition twice (and is currently leading this season too). It has only finished outside the top three once. It has bettered the other 5 leagues mentioned 4 times out of the previous 9 seasons, and may do so for a 5th time in 10 seasons by the end of the current campaign. La Liga has finished first twice and has never finished outside the top three. Its “golden period” during the past decade coincided with a time when Sevilla added its weight to Spain’s continental strength. The Bundesliga has cemented itself in the top four consistently over the past four seasons. Whilst Bayern Munich has been its notable representative in the Champions League, the strength in depth of Germany’s performance has largely been due to its clubs endeavors in the Europa League. This is a strong indicator of the competitive depth found within the Bundesliga.

The Bundesliga – Serie A clash, which eventually led to the Germans gaining a 4th Champions League spot at the expense of the Italians is as tight as ever. Serie A bettered the Bundesliga during the first five seasons, whilst the Bundesliga returned the favor during the previous five, including the current campaign. Effectively, this translates to mean that the Italians need to significantly improve their European performances especially in the Europa League where they have been especially dire if they are to loosen the German grip off that additional Champions League spot.

Number in Bold represents European lead. Number in Italic represents lead between 6 leagues despite not leading across Europe

Value for Money

The beauty about football, probably more so than most other sports, is that on any given day almost any side can beat another, despite un-level playing fields brought upon by spending power, transfer budgets and wages. Watching sides like Levante, Monchengladbach, Montpellier and Swansea impress everyone in their respective leagues this season is testament that you can “succeed” even if you have microscopically smaller budgets than other sides. However, when it comes to football at the highest level, in the Champions League and Europa League, this argument gets transferred onto a bigger “league” stage. The Dutch, for example, have done themselves proud when it comes to performing in Europe when one looks at the spending their sides do in comparison to the other leagues.

The table above is self-explanatory as it details how many points each nation’s clubs would have accrued on a per season basis compared to their spending pattern during that given campaign. The Dutch league consistently punches above its weight and considering its export nature is really performing as well as one could perceive it to. The Premier League spends the most for the amount of points it gets, whilst the Bundesliga does relatively well in terms of its points per Euro spent, spending almost one-third of what the Premier League has to spend per every point. Let’s not lose sight of the fact that whilst the Dutch get “value for money”, the highest points that they have attained in Europe was 12.00 during the 2004/5 campaign. The Bundesliga has out-scored that figure 4 times, Ligue 1 twice, and the Premier League has scored more points during each of the past 7 seasons, including the current incomplete campaign, despite having two major sides knocked out in the group stages of the Champions League already. La Liga has never scored less than 12.437 during any of the past 10 seasons whilst Serie A has out-scored the Eredivisie’s figure 4 times. That puts things into perspective, with the reality that whilst a league may perform well in terms of the resources they’ve spent, the “success ceiling” will be limited past a certain point.

Looking at it from another angle, the graph below looks at things from the perspective of how many million Euros have been spent, per co-efficient point, and may be easier to relate to. Only on three occasions has the Premier League spent less per point than another league. On each of those occasions, including the current campaign, it has been the Serie A that has spent more per point. In terms of consistency and value for money at the highest level, one must not look past La Liga. Whilst not necessarily spending the most, their sides performances have remained consistent over the past decade. Whilst the Premier League has never spent less than 30 million Euros per point, La Liga has only spent that figure only twice during that period.

Direct Correlation between Spending and Succeeding?

Having illuminated many aspects of the argument, it is time to look at a graph designed to illustrate the direct relationship between league spending and European performance by that nation’s clubs. Looking closely at the graph a few realities are realized. The horizontal axis demonstrates the amount of money in millions of Euros whilst the vertical one establishes the UEFA co-efficient points.

1) The most recognizable trend is that the English Premier League sides perform better in Europe as their league spending increases. In other words, performances are better when spending is higher. Their points move upwards and to the right almost without disruption. The consistency of this breaks on a couple of occasions but as stated previously, “one-off” results and performances may vary but the overall pattern/trend over 10 seasons validates our point. The Bundesliga follows a similar model to that of the EPL. Its best performances in Europe have correlated to its biggest spending seasons. However, with a clear cap in its spending, its sides have had limited success past a certain level. No German side has won a European trophy during the period in discussion.

2) Ligue 1 sides seem to perform better when their league has spent less money during the transfer windows. This could suggest that retaining their squads and maintaining continuity is more influential in France when it comes to performance. Serie A also follows a similar model and argument. Money certainly does not equate to success in these two leagues. Furthermore, it may also suggest that a lot of the transfers do not work out over a period of time for the teams and players may be re-transferred sooner than expected. Although, this would require deeper analysis.

3) La Liga falls somewhere in between the two models, probably closer to the Ligue 1/Serie A one. Again, retaining squads and creating “eras” aided La Liga sides during the past decade. Sevilla and Barcelona are two of their success stories during that time. Atletico Madrid, Valencia and Espanyol are three other sides that played in European finals during the past decade.

4) Annual expenditure of approximately 200 million Euros will largely restrict a league to collecting under 12 co-efficient points during the corresponding campaign.

Conclusions

If history is an indicator then a country’s performance in European club football plays a significant role in establishing the “strongest” league of different time periods. La Liga dominated during the 1960’s until English football took over in the late 1960’s for approximately a decade when the Bundesliga went to the fore. This lasted until the mid 1980’s when before a brief return of English football to the tip of European club football, it would be the Serie A, which would go on to dominate for over a decade, almost without interruption, until the early 2000’s. La Liga would then return to the top of the performance charts for the first time in forty years, until the Premier League got its heyday near the end of the decade. At the moment, the balance is poised between the Premier League and La Liga. Whilst we have just described overall European performances, it is clear that this closely correlates to people’s perception of the strongest football leagues during those eras as well.

Money has come to play a huge role in European football during the last twenty years. Serie A dominated continental competitions during the 1990’s when they spent more than they had. It came back to hurt the Italians and they have yet to recover from it, even though signs are there that as money and players begin to pour into Serie A again, Italian football may begin to play a more key role in continental competitions in the near future. The English Premier League has been the biggest spenders over the last decade, however, the level of success attained is probably less than what the kind of money should have warranted. As top English sides begin to stall in Europe this season, there is talk of spending sprees for Chelsea, Arsenal, Manchester United and Manchester City in the coming summer, but is there money to spend, with the Financial Fair Play rules coming into play next season? Considering the fact that the Premier League sides taste more success as they spend more, this could be an obstacle that may allow Italian football back into the equation and turn the two-way tussle between La Liga and the EPL into a three-way.

It is clear that league spending plays an integral role in bringing “relative” success for its clubs in continental competition. However, there are two important ceilings to consider. Firstly, unless a certain financial threshold is broken, thought to be approximately €200 million, it is difficult to surpass certain levels of “success”. However, at the same time, on the flip side, spending more and investing in players, will likely move a nation’s clubs only up to the next level in terms of “relative success”. Looking at the previous table, leagues that spent between €400 million and €600 million largely fell into a central zone gaining between 10 and 16 co-efficient points per season. Moving past that level depends on a number of other factors which seem to have been more prevalent in La Liga.

This could imply that a model which is a hybrid between continuity and transfer expenditure may be the best strategy in ensuring “further” success past a certain point. Squads are retained for a longer period in La Liga, as sporting directors play a key role in player recruitment. The transfer policy does not change from manager to manager, unlike what happens in the Premier League. There is more emphasis on coaching than management. There is a far more significant turn-over of players in the EPL than any of the other leagues discussed whilst their most successful sides during the past decade have been Manchester United and Chelsea, who, notably, retained a strong nucleus of the same players over a long period of time. As the EPL re-examines its financial prowess at the end of the season, it may be worthwhile for the clubs to take a closer look at the Spanish model in order to create more consistent European performances across a wider range of clubs.

A special thanks to Mahdi Rahimi, whose help in compiling some of the analysis/graphs was immense. We hope to be seeing some work from Mahdi in the near future. If you would like to get acquainted with him please follow him on Twitter @liaBIGPUNnov. Majority of raw transfer data has been collated due to the great work from the people at Transfermarkt.

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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.