As the new Premier League season got under way, Manchester United began the defence of their title in unfamiliar territory. For the first time in the league’s history, Sir Alex Ferguson would not be at the club’s helm. Some would argue that the Scot’s achievements during the last few years at his club were among his greatest ever. The argument is based upon a widely circulated notion that the current squad is not the best he’s ever had, especially as it does not possess a dominant or quality central midfield partnership. There were even calls for David Moyes, the new manager, to sign 2 recognized central midfielders during the summer transfer window. He ended up with one, his former Everton player, the Belgian Marouane Fellaini.
The purpose of this article is to analyze the criticisms laid above both objectively and tangibly. In order to do that, we will establish a few facts and put the “performances” of the central midfield under the microscope on a match-by-match basis over during the course of their title winning season in 2012/13. Whilst it is unlikely that a conclusive assessment to either extreme may be formed, it is more than likely that both sides of the argument would become clearer to the audience, who can, consequently, provide educated assessments on the subject.
Who Played There in 2012/13?
Manchester United’s main central midfield partnership last season saw Michael Carrick team up with Tom Cleverley. A third player joined them quite often as Ferguson favored going with 3 in midfield during many of the games (either as a 4-2-3-1 or a 4-3-3). However, the said player would usually play in an advanced role, something Wayne Rooney grew accustomed to. The statistics below exhibit some key stats from the players who filled the 2 deeper midfield roles last season. Phil Jones sat ahead of the defence in a few matches, however also played in central defence and right back and therefore did not complete enough matches in the former role to warrant inclusion.
Michael Carrick was almost an ever-present last season. For many, he was the unsung hero of United’s success and has vastly improved over the past 2 seasons. He has begun contributing defensively, an aspect of his game which had a lot to be desired for in the past. Cleverley started the season brightly but critics argued that he faded as the season went on into a crucial period. Giggs and Scholes offered experienced heads as partners for Carrick and between each other posted impressive contributions, or so it seemed. Brazilian, Anderson, continues to frustrate critics and onlookers. Although technically brilliant, his lack of consistency has prevented him from settling into a regular role in his favored central midfield position.
What We Learn from the Statistics
Michael Carrick comes up in the top 20 in the Premier League from central midfield when it comes to interceptions made. At the same time, in terms of tackling he placed in the top 30 from central midfield. His overall placing in each of those categories is significantly higher when it comes to actual interceptions and tackles as many of his counterparts played far less games but places higher due to the per game ratios used. In terms of assists, he comfortably placed himself in the top 10 from the position. Carrick also provided the 3rd most number of passes per game and in fact the most total number of passes completed in the Premier League. Interestingly, 37% of his passes were forward ones whilst only 8% of them backwards. His percentage of passes forward was higher than that of Santi Cazorla, Mikael Arteta, Yaya Toure or Steven Gerrard among others. The Englishman has been dogged by criticism over his career with respect to the type of passes he undertakes. As he has aged, the criticism has waned and the level of appreciation for his talents increased. He’s currently arguably the best (and maybe only) true English central midfielder in the ilk of a Spaniard like Xabi Alonso or Xavi.
Assessing Performances in Game-Time
Its difficult to review the above statistics and make a conclusive assessment, one way or the other, in terms of United’s central midfield. What may help would be to statistically review their performances head-to-head against counterparts in the Premier League during the course of last season. With that in mind, we’ve assessed all those games and highlighted a sample size which looks at a variety of matches, from wins, to draws as well as defeats defeats, both home and away, in environments that may be more telling for the reader.
In April, towards the end of the season, but crucially before they had clinched the title, United took on West Ham at Upton Park. During that game they came up against the imposing duo of Mohammed Diame and Gary O’Neill. West Ham’s partnership attempted almost half the number of passes of their counterparts. Almost every key aspect of a contest between the two partnerships was more or less similar. Although Diame did score a crucial goal which gained the home side a draw. West Ham also put in slightly better work in the middle when it came to intercepting balls from United. Although that could also be partly due to the amount of passes through attempted by the away side.
A few days earlier, United hosted noisy neighbors Manchester City at Old Trafford. It was set to be a huge step towards winning back the title but by the time the full time whistle was heard, Man City had clawed themselves back into the title race, albeit in vain. United’s central midfield succeeded with 86% of their passes whilst their City counterparts led by Yaya Toure hit 88%. United were on the defensive foot and this was further exhibited with the central midfield achieving 12 tackles and 7 interceptions as opposed to 5 and 2 respectively for the visitors. They also turned the ball over 3 times to their opponents whilst City’s partnership were immaculate in that respect. City went on to win 2-1 at Old Trafford. The earlier match up between the two was at the Etihad Stadium on December 9, 2012. Again, Man City fared a little better than United in the passing accuracy game with 82% against 78%, although the number of passes attempted was far more balanced this time around. Almost every other stat was on par with each other in the area. However, City contributed a goal from the area even though United succeeded with 2 key passes from the deeper position against City’s nil. The game was balanced just as the midfield battle seemed to be, but United took the victory with a last-gasp goal by Robin van Persie.
Other key clashes included United’s February clash with QPR at Old Trafford. United ran out 2-0 winners and this included one goal from central midfield, a rarity for the home side. Passing accuracy was 77% in the middle of the park for both sides, even though United attempted more passes through their central midfielders. QPR were a bit more “cavalier” from that part of the pitch and completed 2 key passes against 1 but this also meant they turned the ball over 5 times in the crucial area against the solitary time United did so.
United’s two clashes with Tottenham were both interesting and revealing. The first one took place at the end of September, 2012, at Old Trafford. Spurs central midfield is far more physical in nature and much more aggressive. Spurs were happy to sit back and let United dominate the play in that area instead choosing to go in hard with tackles and intercept the ball in key areas, launching quick counter attacks. United’s central midfield attempted almost 3 times as many passes as the visitors, with an 89% accuracy, which exhibits the fact that a lot of the passing took place in deeper and safe areas. Spurs on the under hand used a quick tempo, ran with the ball far more from central midfield and hit an 84%% pass accuracy in the area. However, they intercepted the ball 13 times, more than 3 times the figure United’s duo achieved. They intercepted the ball twice as many times as the hosts as well. Interestingly, they also hit 4 key passes in the game and that is an impressive achievement by any measure by any central midfield of two players, especially as they only had a total of 56 passes, as opposed to United’s 256, through which the home side only achieved 2 key passes. Spurs ended up winning 3-2 thanks to an assist directly coming from the central midfield. The return game was in January at White Hart Lane and this time around Spurs were far more adventurous, and the possession stats in the area were much more balanced with Spurs passing it around more through their duo. Furthermore, Spurs succeeded with 5 key passes, another high figure as opposed to the 1 that United’s partnership achieved. United succeeded with twice as many tackles in the area and were dispossessed less and turned the ball over less than the opponents. The final result was a draw.
Other close encounters including those against Swansea and Norwich away, in the first half of the season. United failed to win either, drawing against the former and losing against the latter. But little or no blame can be attached to the central midfield when one looks at the stats. They were better in possession, and dominated passing too. They achieved more key passes in both matches. They also out-tackled their counterparts.
United’s away clash at St. James Park, historically a difficult place for the visitors in October, 2012, was another interesting match-up when it came to central midfield. Newcastle’s partnership of Tiote and Cabaye, on paper look a good combination, albeit both physically on the small side. United’s partnership were just about more accurate in the passing department, getting close to 87% success there. Interestingly, Newcastle’s central midfield had 5 key passes and also had more interceptions and less turnovers. They still lost the game 3-0 and this included a rare goal contribution from United’s partnership.
Finally, Manchester United’s two-games at Merseyside against Liverpool and Everton provided a similar pattern of stats. Firstly, against the blues in August, United’s partnership attempted almost two and a half times as many passes and were far more accurate with the ball than their opponents. They also out-tackled their counterparts whilst the other key stats were similar, except a key assist from Everton which resulted in the only goal of the match. Against the reds, United saw less of the ball in the area. Almost every other key stat was shared there too. This time around Liverpool scored a goal through one of its central midfielders. Nevertheless, United won 2-1.
What have we learned having put Manchester United’s central midfield under the microscope? Its difficult to be definitive in providing a final assessment to the initial question posed in the article. However, it is possible to deduce certain realities when it comes to the topic at hand.
1) Manchester United did not provide consistency to its ideal central midfield partnership last season. This could partly be down to availability but at the same time, Sir Alex Ferguson’s insistence on squad rotation made it difficult for at least 1 of the spots in the partnership to be filled consistently. However, looking at the performances and stats of some of the players, one could argue that other than Michael Carrick no one really warranted a regular spot in the position either.
2) Goals were hard to come by from the position. Only 7 goals from 81 starts (including some starts for Anderson, Giggs and Cleverly in other positions) and 32 sub appearances. To put this into perspective Marouane Fellaini scored 11 times on his own last season, England captain Steven Gerrard scored 9 times, Newcastle’s Cabaye and Arsenal’s Arteta had 6 each, whilst Liverpool’s maligned central midfielder Josh Henderson contributed 5 from 18 starts. However as a partnership, United did not get out-scored by their direct opponents in the games they played (7 goals against 7).
3) In the creativity department, United’s central midfielders contributed 6 assists between them over the course of the season. To put this into context, Yaya Toure had 5 on his own throughout last season. Swansea’s De Guzman had 6, whilst Fellaini had 5. Steven Gerrard led all central midfielders with 9 last season. United’s total of 6 was shared between 3 players (with a further 3 not contributing), and was led by Carrick’s 4 assists.
4) Although they were rarely “out-fought” in head-to-head match-ups, the stats show that over the course of the season, when it came to the defensive side of the game, the numbers posted were solid but not spectacular. Other than Carrick, no other player broke the 2 per game ratio when it came to tackles and interceptions and only 1 other player broke the 50 passes per game ratio. On first inspection that suggests that Carrick plays the ball while his partner works harder to get it back or get into the box to contribute the finishing touches to an attack. However, this was not the case as none of his partners were prolific or improved upon his defensive numbers. However, as a partnership over the course of the season United’s central midfield posted 30% less tackles than their direct opponents and just under 40% less interceptions.
5) Five central midfield partnerships hit double figures when it came to tackles successful against Man United in a game. United’s only managed to do so once.
6) On a game to game basis United’s central midfield were not sloppy in possession dominating the passing 31 times. The 7 occasions during which they were “out-passed” included Arsenal (a), Chelsea (h), Everton (h), Spurs (a), Wigan (a), Man City (h) and Liverpool (a).
7) The Carrick – Cleverley starting partnership was the most successful one followed by Carrick – Scholes. In fact, Carrick formed one-half of the 4 most successful partnerships they had. Ryan Giggs formed the least successful partnership over the course of the season when he teamed up with Carrick, seeing United lose half the games they started together.
8) Whilst United’s partnership usually keeps their counterparts on par with themselves, they do not dominate them either other than in the passing department.
9) United’s partnerships turned the ball over more than their counterparts over the course of the season.
10) On 6 occasions did United’s central midfielders post 100+ passes in a game. Carrick did so 4 times whilst Scholes twice. In fact, against against Spurs at home and Villa away they both had 100+ games. Carrick’s season high 134 during the latter, whilst Scholes high was 148 against the former.
It is harsh to suggest that Manchester United’s central midfield is its Achilles Heel. However, when you look at the fact that they are the champions and have the league’s top scorer as well as one of its meanest defenses, it is also difficult to suggest other positions that should be strengthened ahead of the central midfield. A lack of goals and final-third creativity is evident. At the same time, whilst most of the other 19 sides in the Premier League have a favored partnership in the middle of the park, United have failed to cement one. This may largely be attributed to Ferguson’s style of management. Moyes may choose a different avenue and rotate less in key areas such as this.
Furthermore, the signing of Marouane Fellaini brings both goals and assists into the side as well as better defensive numbers than all of United’s current midfielders, even though some of his numbers had been posted through playing in a more advanced role. Nevertheless, a Carrick – Fellaini partnership may be what significantly improves United’s central midfield allowing it to dominate its opponents far more in that area.
With special thanks to Who Scored for their range of statistics on the 2012/13 Premier League season
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.