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Van Gaal’s savvy will exploit Arsenal’s weaknesses

November 14, 2014 Tags: , Opinion 7 comments
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Perhaps it is a bit too early to write about the upcoming game against Arsenal. If Manchester United’s recent injury woes are anything to go by, there is good chance that key Reds will not make it to the Emirates after the international break. Still, Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal has a distinct style and weaknesses that come with it; a tactician as keen as Louis van Gaal will certain try to exploit them.

This season United has been troubled by constant injuries to defenders, but Arsenal’s threat is one that even the current weakened United defence can cope with. Danny Welbeck is in a poor patch of form, despite scoring six times this season, and Paddy McNair, who handled the stylistically similar Romelu Lukaku well, should match the former United striker.

Alexis Sanchez, who has already scored eight goals this season, is a worry though. Van Gaal’s preference for a high line has left United vulnerable to quick balls over the top and Sanchez has the legs to punish the Reds. Rafael da Silva’s injury has put Antonio Valencia at right back of late and the Ecuadorian’s conservatism should negate at least some of Sanchez’s explosiveness down Arsenal’s left wing.

United’s midfield has not been functioning to its full potential, but it now boasts some quality at least. Perhaps, enough quality to match and exceed Arsenal’s midfield. Still, counter-attacking has always been productive against Arsenal and the pragmatic Van Gaal will probably choose that a similar strategy next weekend.

Arsenal’s standing weakness has been its dogged adherence to the passing game. Many teams have exposed the London side by pressing heavily and United, for the first time in five years or so, has the midfield to challenge Arsenal in the centre of the park. Ander Herrera, should he play, could be key due to his pace and aggression.

Mathieu Flamini, Arsenal’s holding midfielder, is highly similar to Danny Blind in that the Frenchman is slow and relies more on positional awareness than tackling. In this Angel di Maria’s forays into central areas could be influential. Unlike Blind, though, Flamini has a notable weakness in the air – he has attempted less than two headers per game so far – and Maroune Fellaini and/or Wayne Rooney could prove crucial should Van Gaal choose a more direct approach.

Another of the Gunners’ weaknesses is in defence. The summer acquisition, Mathieu Debuchy, has been laid off with an ankle injury, while first choice centre back Laurent Koscielny also set to miss the clash with United next Saturday.

In fact Per Mertesacker is the only Arsenal defender to have played with any regularity this season. It is, however, no coincidence that he is the only Arsenal defender to have played in all of Arsenal’s draws and losses this season. Perhaps due to his lack of pace, the German has only attempted 1.5 tackles per game this season. Mertesacker has also made a meagre 2.6 interceptions per game. Both figures are roughly half of Koscielny’s. This is indicative of a player rooted to the penalty box. With Flamini unlikely to come to rescue, and saddled with an inexperienced partner, Mertesacker will concede a lot of ground to United’s forwards.

It is an observation that Robin van Persie, in particular, should enjoy. Despite scoring three goals, Van Persie has come in for much criticism this season. He has suffered several sub-par games, but the suspicion is that Ramadel Falcao’s presence, or the lack there of, is adding to the weight of criticism. It is evident that Van Persie no longer has the dynamism that Falcao offers and one cannot help but wonder whether di Maria and others are being hindered from the lack of movement United’s lone forward now offers.

Indeed, Van Gaal’s shift to a 4-1-4-1 system has greatly hindered Van Persie, and by extension United, by isolating the Dutchman. Di Maria has been forced wide with little support and the Argentinian’s inherent profligacy has come to the fore.

Manchester UnitedHerrera’s return, with his dynamism, should help but the time is nigh for the diamond to be re-introduced. Arsenal offers little threat from out wide so the narrowness inherent in this formation is not be an issue. Di Maria will always have two strikers to chase his through balls and United will outnumber the Gunners in the middle – always a key area at the Emirates.

Crucially, injuries to defenders may dictate Blind plays as centre back again. Unless van Gaal chooses the brave option by playing Tyler Blackett alongside Mcnair, United will be short of a proper defensive midfielder, with Michael Carrick also injured. Thus deploying four through centre midfield becomes a defensive necessity.

Then there is the fact that Mertesacker is Aresenal’s most prolific passer this season. This is reflective of Arsenal’s tendency to play out from the back. United’s commitment to pressing this season could force a mistake or two in north London. Van Persie is unlikely to be a constant nuisance to Mertesacker, whereas Falcao will be if fit. The Colombian has also created two assists this season by drifting into wide areas and the his lateral movement should stretch an already vulnerable Arsenal defence.

There is, of course, no guarantee that Falcao will be ready the game given his injury problems. There are other options though. Adnan Januzaj has been frequently considered a forward by Van Gaal and the recent Golden Boy nominee could partner Van Persie up top. Another, and possibly more likely, option is James Wilson’s introduction. The academy graduate has already been trusted, albeit as a substitute, in big games.

Van Gaal is too canny a manager not to have held the entire season in mind when he became boss at Old Trafford. The 3-4-1-2 system that started the season quickly became a 4-4-2 diamond, and although the make-up of that midfield shape has changed, the narrow formation persisted. It suggests that van Gaal sees four in midfield as a necessity. It certainly makes sense against Arsenal.

Graphic from LineupBuilder.com

Data Rant: will United make the Champions League?

November 3, 2014 Tags: , , Data 12 comments
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Each week, Louis van Gaal appears to break a new record: the “worst x games in Manchester United history”. This time round the lowest points total at this stage since 1986 – in the corresponding week that Ron Atkinson was sacked 28 years ago. Indeed, the David Moyes experience has tinted everyone’s outlook though Sir Alex Ferguson’s remarkable rise after a lean first few years should not be forgotten just yet.

With that said, United’s loss to City on Sunday all but conceded the title. Barring a catastrophic meltdown on Chelsea’s part, United’s 21st English title will have to wait. Worse, for United, reaching the top four spot is under genuine threat.

United is only four points behind Arsenal in fourth and the gap may be bridged to just one should the Reds prevail against the London side in two week’s time. Moreover, while Southampton’s point haul so far is amazing, at the risk of being patronising, the Saints’ thin squad will surely suffer as the season goes one, dragging the side down at some point.

In that context the situation may appear somewhat manageable, but it is worth remembering that there are still 28 games to go – continuation of the current form will see United missing Europe for two seasons in a row.

After all, as Data Rant previously noted the number of “poor streaks” is a good indicator of the final points tally. A poor streak is two or more consecutive draws or losses and “a team may have a poor patch of form – even a pretty severe one – but it’s fine as long as the team can get back to winning ways and stay on that path.”

Figure-1

The past two seasons suggests that side’s in the top four have suffered at most five poor streaks during a campaign, though realistically only three are allowed. United has already suffered two by this definition and there is little margin for error if history has any weight.

Figure-2

Data Rant also analysed the relationship between the final point tally and points from the first five games of 2012/13 and 2013/14. The relationship was weak – after all, five games is only 13 per cent of a season. Let’s see if we can judge a season after a quarter of it has passed.

Figure-3

Quite obviously the fit of trend line has tightened. The predicted final tally based on 13 points at this stage is just 51 – nowhere near the top four. Normally, a mid-70 final point total is required to qualify for the Champions League.

Points Total

The standard deviation here is 13.9, assuming normal distribution, meaning there is about a 4.2 per cent probability of United gathering 75 points come May, according to Data Rant’s calculations.

Points Total

Excellence is no longer enough – only consistent excellence will do. A busy winter transfer window is a must though this may very well be a job too far even for the “Iron Tulip.”

All data from Squawka
Assumptions dictating linear regression have not been held strict

Data Rant: United’s use of width

October 28, 2014 Tags: Data 5 comments
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Perhaps a push for the Premier League title is a step too far this season, but a place in the top four appears an achievable goal after Sunday’s draw with Chelsea – it leaves Manchester United only three points off the coveted fourth spot. Not least because Southampton and West Ham United are unlikely to sustain their excellent form, while Arsenal and Liverpool are nearing the point of permanent self-destruction.

The normally rampant Chelsea side was comfortably held by United at Old Trafford on Sunday, despite the Reds requiring a late equaliser, with seven yellow cards speaking to how desperately the Londoners defended at times. Indeed, much of the tactical battle was won by United manager Louis van Gaal. Cesc Fabregas was silenced by Maroune Fellaini, while Daley Blind and Juan Mata pressed high up the pitch forcing Chelsea to play long more often than is typical.

More interesting, perhaps, was Robin van Persie’s role, with the Dutchman dropping deep to create space for Fellaini to exploit. In fact, Van Persie, who started the season poorly, had an excellent game, which was capped by that dramatic late goal.

Tactics

Previously, this column has identified the importance of shots per game and take on attempts as two key indicators of a striker’s goal tally. The Dutch striker’s shots per game ratio has dropped sharply from 2012/13, and so has interceptions per game.

Players stationed deeper are more likely to intercept opposition passes so the figure is a good indicator of a player’s position on the pitch. The numbers suggest that Van Persie’s isolation upfield has been causing the Netherlands captain to shoot less.

Table 1

Van Persie has lost the pace of yore and perhaps the aging process has also caused the 31- year-old to become more of a poacher. With no ‘big man’ to play off, Van Persie needs runners around him to ‘ghost’ into the box. As the most advanced player, Van Persie has to hold up the ball and lead the line – something that the former Arsenal player can no longer do as effectively. Van Persie enjoyed a fine game against Chelsea, ironically, because he was further away from goal.

Curiously, United frequently resorted to directing the play wide against the Londoners. True, Angel Di Maria is the most creative player in the squad, while the youthful Adnan Januzaj offers genuine pace, but a more central approach could theoretically have been more fruitful. With Fellaini providing a physical presence, Van Persie might have made more out of through balls than aerial battles. And, terrible recent form notwithstanding, Mata was also marginalised as result of the strategy. Note that United’s reliance on the flanks has been almost Moyesian of late.

Take for a moment the following thought experiment. With David de Gea initiating a United attack the Spaniard has an option to go wide or central. Choose, for example, Di Maria on the left and the Argentinean can cross, or pass to his central midfield colleague, with the latter more likely to attempt a through-ball. In our example, had de Gea picked out Ander Herrera the new Old Trafford arrival can attack the opposition box or release Rafael da Silva down right for the Brazilian to cross.

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This decision is a matter of risks and rewards. A sideways pass is relatively safe – connecting typically more than 75 per cent of the time. Threading the ball through to a forward is hard, but much more likely to yield dividends in terms of chances created than crossing into the box, especially given that the Reds don’t have a towering striker. Assume, respectively, success rates of around 15 and 10 per cent.

Suppose further that United players are indifferent between passing sideways and vertically – about half the time each. Logic dictates that the Reds are slightly better off taking the central route by 0.7 percentage points.

Despite the meagre difference, the figure is significant. Given the amount of creative talent in the middle, and Van Gaal’s tendency this season to field a number 10, the central approach will be far more productive in creating chances than the theoretical 15 per cent. Further, with United lacking the brawn to make the most of crosses the supposed success rate of 10 per cent is likely a very generous estimate. Therefore the gap between success through the middle or from wide areas is likely to be much bigger.

So why has United been so focused on playing down the flanks?

Mata and Wayne Rooney’s failure to shine at number 10 could be an issue, but a much more likely reason is the Reds’ leaky defence. When United concedes possession in central areas, the opposition has the entire width of the pitch through which to conduct play. Lose the ball out wide, however, and United can contain the danger to that flank and adjacent areas – sweeping passes to the opposite flank is more likely to end up in the stands than a good attacking situation. From a defensive point of view, keeping the ball wide is the safer option.

Put succinctly, van Gaal has likely sacrificed some attacking flair for defensive solidity. United has been playing this way all season – it follows that Van Gaal has been concerned with United’s defence from day one.

The famous Latin phrase Quad Erat Demonstrandum is rarely used to conclude a proof on the grounds of pretension. Mathematicians, instead, draw a little square to end proof – and square passes are the keys in unlocking the van Gaalacticos.

A runner down the left flank will benefit by having a midfield to offload the ball to. In the middle, a player must always have safe options to relieve pressure in order to progress with United’s defensive structure intact. As the newly assembled United squad assimilate to playing with each other, there should be more central – therefore more creative – approaches fostered.

Van Gaal has talked the talk of upholding United’s attacking tradition. When will he start walking the walk? It has already been three months.

Mata must adapt or be cast aside

October 23, 2014 Tags: Opinion 13 comments
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It may surprise some, but against West Bromwich Albion last Monday Manchester United attempted 42 crosses. While not quite approaching a Moyesian figure, the number is quite significant given that Louis van Gaal is primarily known for passing football. Ashley Young made only a brief appearance in the Midlands, while Antonio Valencia was nowhere to be seen; most of United’s crosses came from Angel di Maria and Rafael da Silva. The quality has therefore improved from last season even if United still does not have a towering centre forward to take advantage.

Despite the large number of crosses against the Baggies’ there has been a noticeable change in how the Reds play since the new manager took helm in July. Defenders are now encouraged to take part in the build-up, while United’s tempo has been upped significantly. The debate over United’s central midfield style continues, but there is a greater emphasis on build up through midfield than in the past. after all, most of United’s engine room wasn’t with the club at this time last year.

Di Maria and Ander Herrera are more than capable of playing through the middle, while Juan Mata has several seasons’ worth of experience in a creative role in the Premier League. It is worth recalling that Jose Mourinho sold the Spaniard, part at least, for being too slow. Still, there remains a question mark over the Spaniard, especially given his disappointing performances in Wayne Rooney’s absence.

Mata’s distribution is short and he seeks to work the ball into the dangerous areas. Yet, the essential criticism of the Spaniard’s style is that with two strikers ahead of him, the Spain international needs to release Ramadel Falcao or Robin van Persie quicker. There is little need to deploy two up top if the team is going to play patiently around the centre.

Mata slows the game down to the extent that United has tended to cross from deep, albeit adroitly done by di Maria. The former Chelsea Player of the Year is then frequently called on to recycle the ball from advanced areas. Take Mata’s performance versus QPR as an example.

Juan Mata v QPR

Rooney, on the other hand, has characteristically sought to quickly and directly engage the flanks. The Englishman is also far more direct – he has attempted 2.17 runs per game while Mata has done so barely once every two games. Rooney’s other qualities, including his defensive contribution, have been noted and it seems that, even from a stylistic point of view, Rooney fits the Van Gaal philosophy more closely than Mata. Here is Rooney’s performance against Leicester City.

Wayne Rooney vs Leicester

It is also worth noting that Mata naturally takes up space in the hole, where Rooney does not. van Persie has often been shunted out wide in search of space while the energetic and creative Herrera faces clutter as he pushes forward with his compatriot in the team.

Perhaps, dispatching Shinji Kagawa instead of Mata during the summer was an error? After all, Kagawa has been well-schooled in ‘heavy metal’ style at Borussia Dortmund. Rooney, for all his many shortcomings, is tailor made for a high-tempo approach.

In Van Gaal’s midfield diamond the ‘number 10’ is essentially an attacker, with playmaking shared amongst three deeper midfielders. And while there is no denying that the Englishman sometimes slows down the play due to his lack of technique, he is prepared to run at his man and work hard for the team. Rooney offers an aerial target as well and his ability to play as a number nine opens up all kinds of interesting opportunities once he, Falcao and van Persie click. It seems that Kagawa had a home to return to and Mata didn’t.

Then there is Adnan Januzaj. His first start of the season ended disastrously, but then again few Reds left the Hawthorns with credit. It is also worth noting that only Rafael supported the Belgian regularly with Marouane Fellaini and Mata offering little in terms of ‘vertical’ support. Januzaj offers pace and, for now, his lack of playmaking maturity matters little in Van Gaal’s thinking. It could very well be that Januzaj, rather than Mata, is Rooney’s deputy at number 10 as the season progresses.

Yet Januzaj’s versatility is also worth considering. Van Gaal has often noted that Januzaj is one of his forwards. All signs point to the Dutchman trying to set up a fluid front three and the 19-year-old’s education as a ‘false nine’ in the reserves could come to feature heavily.

Van Gaal has already abandoned the diamond for a 4-1-4-1 system against West Brom – the 4-4-2 diamond is very thin on the flanks after all. The former Bayern Munich coach is also, along with Sir Alex Ferguson and Rafa Benitez, one of pioneers of the 4-2-3-1 very much in vogue in the Premier League. The system he settles will say much about the roles of Mata, Rooney and Januzaj.

At Bayern, Van Gaal paired the physically robust Van Bommel with the more technical Bastian Schweinsteiger in central midfield. In Herrera, Michael Carrick, Daley Blind and Fellaini the new United manager can set up a variety of holding midfield combinations.

The 63-year-old’s deployment of the energetic Thomas Müller at Bayern might suggest Mata will struggle to fit in at United, but it puts Rooney and Herrera as prime candidates for a role at number 10. Januzaj, meanwhile, could also fulfil the roles played by Arjen Robben and Franc Ribéry should van Gaal return to his German system.

It is interesting that Van Gaal’s philosophy has become increasingly focused on the attacking third. Perhaps due to his successful counter-attacking side at AZ Alkmaar and with the Netherlands, he has developed an apprehension for opposition breaks and the manner in which United has conceded goals this season will be weighing heavily on his mind. It leads to the conclusion that Van Gaal is no longer a fan of stroking around passes in the attacking third – lest a lucky interception leads to concession of the ball. It is not a good observation is you are Mata.

It seems that in Van Gaal’s brain the number 10 is an attacker. Rooney is one and so is Januzaj; Mata is a midfielder and a patient, albeit highly creative, one at that. There is another left-field option though: given the Dutchman’s history, Mata might very well emerge this season as a number four. Schweinsteiger, after all, was a winger until he was 26.

Data Rant: the first five games

September 25, 2014 Tags: , Data 1 comment
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It is some surprise that under Louis van Gaal Manchester United has made a worse start to the season than under David Moyes last year. It is surely the calibre of the Dutchman that has kept discontent at a minimum. With so much investment in the summer, United’s minimum goal is to finish in the Premier League top four, while the lack of League Cup and Champions League games might even allow the Reds a shot at the title.

Still, after just five games, United has drifted to eight points behind Chelsea and five off Arsenal. With 33 games remaining these points can be made up, but there is no denying that a win and two draws out of five games against relative minnows is a very poor start.

Club’s that suffer a bad run at the beginning of the season often attribute the malaise to a ‘squad gelling,’ while Sir Alex Ferguson often cited his side as an example of “late starters.” But what about teams that make a great start? Does this contribute to a strong season as a whole, with the side continuing to win. Or do teams’ great starts unravel as the season marches on and injuries take toll? Data Rant takes a look.

Figure 1, below, charts the total points gained in a season versus points gathered in the first five games – we look at the teams involved in past two Premier League campaigns. There is little to suggest that the final point tally can be predicted from early season form.

Figure-1-Points-vs-Five-Games

In 2012/13, Chelsea enjoyed the best start by gathering 13 points from five games yet ended up third. Liverpool had a comparatively bad start, ending up with two points in five games – the same as Reading and Q.P.R. Yet, the Anfield side finished  seventh while Reading and Q.P.R were relegated. Newcastle United, on the other hand, enjoyed a relatively good beginning to the campaign, gaining eight points, but barely escaped relegation. Tottenham Hotspur, who managed the same eight points, almost beat Arsenal to Champions League qualification.

In the following season, 2013/14, Arsenal and Tottenham won two more points in first five games than Manchester City, Liverpool and Chelsea yet finished fourth and sixth. Sunderland only mustered one point, but survived relegation despite Norwich City, Fulham and Cardiff City winning four, four and five points at the start.

Any team can have an off day; a well prepared minnow can also take a bigger side by surprise and win on its merits. The goal for every team is to not only minimise losses and draws, but also to make sure that it bounces back from any surprise.

In this Data Rant a poor streak is defined as two or more consecutive draws or losses and its length as the number of these consecutive draws or losses. In figure 2, below, there is stunning correlation between total points and the aggregate of poor streaks. It is also totally predictable – the team that loses and draws the least will win the title.

Still, this result warrants some discussion – consider last season’s champions Manchester City. The club had two poor streaks during the campaign, each with a loss and a draw. Apart from those runs, City had four ‘isolated’ losses and three ‘isolated’ draws – more lost points in isolation than through poor form.

Figure-2-Points-vs-Aggregate-Poor-Streaks

Liverpool, the runners-up, narrowly missed the title in 2013/14 with only one more draw than City, but the Merseysiders had two more poor streaks than the Etihad side. Arguably, resilience won the title for City.

In figure 3 we look directly at the relationship between points and the average length of poor streaks. At first, there is little to speak of, but a trend emerges, in Figure 4, when we remove the outliers such as Reading.

Figure-3-Points-vs-Ave-Length-of-Streak

 

Figure-4-Points-vs-Ave-Length-of-Streak-Outliers

Notice that a seemingly clear outlier in Chelsea, 12/13, has not been removed. The London side shall serve as a litmus test, of sorts, to determine if either the length or number of poor streaks has a discernible effect on the final points tally. The trend is much stronger in the latter.

Figure-5-Points-vs-Number-of-streaks

Chelsea managed to reduce the average length of a poor streak length by 56 per cent over the two seasons yet only gained a 9.3 per cent increase in total points. In short, a team may have a poor patch of form – even a pretty severe one – but it’s fine as long as the team can get back to winning ways and stay on that path.

Chelsea-points

In 2012/13 and 2013/14 the top four sides, at most, suffered five poor streaks (Arsenal 12/13). United has already totted up one such streak this season and is on the cusp of another. It is worth noting that Arsenal beat Tottenham to fourth in 2012/13 by one point, while Liverpool, 2nd, and United, 7th, both suffered four poor streaks. Given that, Van Gaal can afford only two more bad runs this season. A title run remains feasible – though there is little room for mistakes . Then again, title runs tend to be that way.

All data from Squawka
Assumptions dictating linear regression have not been held strict

Rooney is no number 10, but may be the only choice

September 24, 2014 Tags: Opinion 14 comments
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What, exactly, does Louis van Gaal see in Rooney?

Manchester United’s 5-3 loss to Leicester City on Sunday saw Wayne Rooney deployed at the tip of a midfield diamond. Rooney’s ineptitude at ‘number 10’ has often been noted on these pages and suspicion is that Juan Mata or even the callow Adnan Januzaj would have done a far better job as United’s chief creator.

At the very least, Mata would have kept possession better than the former Evertonian and, perhaps, would have prevented some of Leicester’s frequent counter-attacks as a result. After all, Rooney’s pass completion rate of 83 per cent is 10 percentage points lower than the Spaniard’s typical number. Moreover, Rooney simply does not have the first touch to navigate tight quarters and 57.9 per cent of his passes this season have been backwards as a result.

The argument that Van Gaal is “indulging” his captain holds little sway though – the Dutchman has a long history of dropping the seemingly undroppable. Instead, a careful study of Van Gaal’s tactics reveals a genuine reason for deploying Rooney in the hole.

Ideally, United’s midfield might include a holder, runner and a creator. Danny Blind, Ander Herrera and Angel di Maria, respectively, fulfilled these roles against Leicester at the weekend. United’s diamond leaves a spare man and Rooney can play each of these roles effectively, though perhaps not expertly. Mata, on the other hand, can only really act as the creator – as the Spaniard’s muted substitute appearance in a deeper role demonstrated.

Rooney’s well-roundedness might well appeal to Van Gaal’s Dutch sensibilities, although the veteran is hardly a sentimental man. The Dutchman’s midfield diamond, or the 3-4-1-2 deployed earlier this season for that matter, were each born of a harsh reality. It was easier to acquire an upgrade on Danny Welbeck than it is to completely restock United’s wingers. Paying £60 million for di Maria makes much sense given that the Argentine’s excellence in a midfield diamond dates back to his days at Benfica.

The former Real Madrid player has also frequently ventured out to the left flank in his early appearances for United to provide a genuine presence out wide. For example, di Maria whipped in several beautiful crosses during his short tenure at United and, the thinking goes, Rooney is better equipped than Mata to take advantage. Herrera, meanwhile, can and does make late runs but he has not yet demonstrated aerial presence on par with the Englishman.

It comes with the role of creator, of course, but the Argentine has also been rather wasteful with the ball. United’s number 10, therefore, has to mop up plenty of loose balls – a task Mata simply cannot do given his lack of brawn or weaknesses off-the-ball. Essentially, Rooney has become the new Ji-Sung Park in Van Gaal’s system – albeit one that packs more of a punch.

A critical issue, though, is Rooney’s positioning. Supporters at the Leicester game often witnessed Rooney standing dumb in the middle during the offensive phase, offering little and often blocking the path to di Maria. Suspicion is that Rooney is simply not tactically sophisticated enough to comprehend United’s nuanced tactics. Training ground drills should take care of this, although Van Gaal has been in charge for three months now.

Another issue is Rooney’s lack of first touch. Rooney often drifts deep in search of space to mask his lack of technique. With three central midfielders, such movement only adds to the congestion in the centre of the park. It also leaves Robin van Persie and Falcao far too isolated in a system that was meant to use Rooney as its main creator. With nobody in the hole di Maria was often forced to cross from deep.

In advanced positions Rooney often pings the ball straight back – again very reminiscent of Park. Two creative midfielders in di Maria and Herrera ensure that this isn’t a major problem and, as long as Rooney remains positionally disciplined, creativity should not be an issue. Even if Rooney resorts to his typical, tactically inept ways, di Maria and Herrera have the quality to dribble their way into the final third.

As usual with Rooney, everything depends on other players and the argument for more specialist players makes much sense. There is simply no denying that Mata is the better creator. Indeed, with four centrally positioned midfielders, ball retention eliminates the need for Rooney at all.

Yet, Rooney’s deployment in the hole hints at a bigger issue – one that van Gaal seems to be acutely aware of: defence. Having failed to recruit a world-class centre back Tyler Blackett and Johnny Evans have been cruelly exposed this season. At King Power Stadium, Marcos Rojo was noticeably more reserved than Rafael da Silva on the right. For the first time in van Gaal’s Old Trafford tenure, David de Gea consistently cleared long. Evidently, van Gaal has lost confidence in United’s ability to play out from back. Rooney’s aerial presence then becomes a real asset.

Blind’s lack of pace is another factor – the former Ajax Player of Year simply cannot be counted on to stop quick breaks. Until United’s defence can confidently maintain possession, the side will be forced long. Until the defence can be trusted, Rooney must play.

It is worth noting that Luke Shaw has not yet played for the Reds. Phil Jones, arguably United’s best central defender, will also soon be back from injury. Once the first choice back four is up and running Mata is likely to come back into contention – and Rooney’s place may be at more risk than many believe. In there interim the Spaniard is advised to use his head and remain patient.

Van Gaal’s ‘modern’ wing-backs

September 6, 2014 Tags: , , , Opinion 4 comments
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Deploying a ‘wrong-footed’ winger is no longer a radical concept – in fact it is now fully mainstream. Wingers cut inside, vacate space for full-backs to run into, enabling attacking teams to get more bodies into the middle whilst retaining some width. Even lowly Sunderland regularly use inverted wingers these days. More interesting, perhaps, is a corollary now being tested at Old Trafford. Just a little deeper.

Ashley Young has deputised for the injured Luke Shaw at left wing-back this season; perhaps it is a simple stop-gap measure, and a natural one at that, considering Young’s typical role as a left winger. Yet, there is also some evidence that Louis van Gaal is entirely comfortable deploying the ‘wrong-footed’ Young at wing-backs. That it is, in fact, part of his grand design.

Consider United’s match against Swansea City for a moment, when Adnan Januzaj, a left-footed player, replaced Jesse Lingard at right wing-back. Van Gaal held plenty of alternatives to the Belgian; he could have brought Michael Keane into the centre and shifted Phil Jones to the right, or swapped Young and Januzaj’s flanks. Meanwhile, Nani, a genuine right-winger, was left on the bench.

Deploying a left footer at right wing-back seemingly makes little sense. After all, in Van Gaal’s 3-4-1-2 system, wing-backs are the sole providers of width and must be ready to cross; having to cut back eats up precious time, slowing down attacking play.

Yet, Van Gaal also asks his midfield two to offer some auxiliary width to make up for the lack of wingers in the system. Should a central midfielder vacate the centre to take the ball down the touchline, midfield could look very bare. In this scenario United’s wing-backs are a natural alternative to provide cover and fill the gap.

Wing-backs in 3-4-1-2 formation, for example, are often free to receive the ball and able to cut inside allowing central midfielders space to run into the channels. In this case being wrong-footed helps the wing-back cut in.

During early season matches Darren Fletcher has played a loose holding role, with the Scot’s partner is deployed box-to-box. Notice that Ander Herrera partnered the wrong footed Januzaj on the right in the Swansea game and Tom Cleverley was the left central midfielder near Young against Sunderland. Deliberate rather than coincidental, perhaps.

Reports that Rafael da Silva has been deemed a surplus are puzzling given that there is a dearth of right full-backs/wing-backs at Old Trafford. The lack of recruitment in this area points to the reports being fallacious. Yet, Van Gaal has a track record of retraining players in a new position. United’s back five come December could – as one example – very well include, Januzaj, and Jones, together with Marcus Rojo and Jonny Evans.

Of course, it is easy to read too much into early season developments; the trap of confusing emergency measures with innovation is obvious.

Still, the idea of an inverted wing-back cutting into the middle makes much sense. With Juan Mata deployed at number 10, and Wayne Rooney partnering Robin Van Persie up-front, a central midfielder rushing into the box only adds to the traffic, occupying the forwards’ “zone” as the Dutchman one put it. By contrast, diagonal runs from central midfield to the flank take a marker away and create space for the front three.

The security provided by an additional centre-back in Van Gaal’s system allows a central defender to act as full-back if required. Tyler Blackett, in particular, has been doing so already. Inverted wing-backs, therefore, allow the front three space, backed by a two man midfield, with a fully functional flank as well.

Otherwise there is little to suggest that 3-4-1-2 will be a long-term solution. Herrera is mobile, but lacks the defensive nous to partner Angel di Maria, while Fletcher no longer has the legs. It is hard to see how United will successfully make the transition from defence to attack when the opposition is simply willing to camp behind the ball.

At international level Van Gaal used 3-4-1-2 an emergency measure forced by Kevin Strootman’s untimely injury. At Old Trafford it is to accommodate Mata, Rooney and Van Persie in the same team. Shaw’s return, together will Rafael, will offer some genuine width and ease the transition, but it is still hard to foresee how United will break down teams happy to park the bus.

United’s lack of wingers mean that lone wing-backs can easily be defended by doubling up. Tempo will be taken out as forwards drop deep to move the ball upfield and United’s opponents will have ample time to organise into a solid unit. Shaw and da Silva are better crossers than Young or Antonio Valencia, but Premier League sides are adept at defending balls delivered into the box. Just ask David Moyes.

It is also worth noting that while a draw might well be a ‘half win’ in the World Cup, given the penalty shoot-outs on offer, too many are fatal to top teams’ hopes in the Premier League. The fact that one of Mata or Rooney will have to be deployed wide in a 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3 adds weight to the theory that an inverted wing-back is a genuine tactical innovation by Van Gaal. Though correct-footed, we may see Rafael or Shaw cutting in at will.

Van Gaal certainly has a resumé for tactical revolution. Sir Alex Ferguson, by contrast, was always more of a fast follower than proper innovator. The Dutchman has a Fergusonian ruthless streak though and might very well shoehorn Rooney or Mata into 4-3-3. The thought lingers, however, that United cannot counter-attack its way into the top four. Nor will that extra central defender create or score enough to guarantee Champions League football next season.

Data Rant: Danny Welbeck

September 3, 2014 Tags: , Data 11 comments
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Danny Welbeck’s departure to Arsenal is peculiar in the sense that the London club was arguably in greater need of Radamel Falcao than Manchester United. As is, United has upgraded the forward line while Arsenal has acquired a Premier League quality forward to weather the loss of Olivier Giroud. Win-win, perhaps, but Welbeck’s transfer is far more nuanced than squad betterment alone. It leaves the question of just how successful Welbeck can be at Arsenal?

A local lad leaving his boyhood club has understandably stoked an emotional response from many Reds. On the pitch, though, the England international has divided opinions. Welbeck’s athleticism is obvious for all, but his technique and, in particular, finishing have been often questioned – the former United striker has never broken the 20 goal-a-season barrier.

There is a popular counter argument though: that Welbeck has often been shunted into roles that are not his best, either deep or out wide, to “do a job.” Welbeck will, goes the argument, fulfil his goalscoring potential once he is given a run as the main forward. Daniel Sturridge has flourished since his move to Liverpool and has often been cited as an example supporting this thesis.

Welbeck, at least until Giroud returns from injury, will be deployed up-front at the Emirates – the Longsight-born striker will have a solid series of games in his favoured position, injuries permitting. It is a role he may keep should goals come for Arsenal.

Yet, Wayne Rooney’s rapid decline and Robin van Persie’s age may also necessitate reinforcement at United beyond Falcao in the coming years. With neither Rooney nor van Persie always injury-free, Welbeck’s sale could very well go down as a strategic mistake should the Englishman become the forward some believe him to be.

Data Rant looks to statistical analysis to see if this scenario is possible. We have used 2013/14 season data and look at forwards who scored more than 10 goals in the Premier League.

First, we investigate whether number of shots per match has any relation to goals scored. After all, Welbeck’s stats should improved as a regular first team starter as he will have more opportunities to strike at goal.

Figure-1

Figure 1, above, makes perfect sense – more shots equals more goals, although the question of why remains. Next, we look if shot accuracy has any relationship with goals scored. After all, more shots on target should lead to more goals.

Figure-2

In figure 2 there is no trend to speak of. This also makes sense – after all, one goal in 10 shots on target and one goal after nine off-target means essentially the same thing. In figure 3, below, we look at correlation between shot conversion rate and goals scored.

Figure-3

Again there is little correlation. If we look deeper at the data there is little variation in accuracy or conversion (Emmanuel Adebayor’s freakish 33.3 per cent conversion rate aside). Does this mean that there is little to finishing apart from getting into the box and taking a chance? Figure 4 demonstrates that this theory does not hold up.

Figure-4

So far we have neglected the role of provider: the team must do just as much work to feed the striker for a goal to be scored. To see how important chance creation is in goals scored we look at number of assists each striker’s team recorded in 2013/14.

Figure-5

In figure 5, above, there is a fairly strong relationship, which is obvious. What isn’t obvious is the fact that the number of goals scored is almost purely dependent upon the number of shots attempted. Amongst the élite, there seems to be little difference in ‘finishing’ and scoring principally comes down to chance creation and frequency of goal attempts.

One thing that the data, at least the publicly available kind, doesn’t capture is movement. But if off-the-ball movement was so important then the role of creator would be greater than the data appears to demonstrate – after all, off-the-ball runs have to be found.

Figure-6

In figure 6 there is a very strong relationship between take on attempts per game and goals. More important than having creative teammates is a striker’s ability to create his own chances.

The data indicates that finishing as a technique is overrated. Instead a striker should be judged by his ability to take as many shots as possible. That ability is predicated somewhat by his team’s creative prowess, but more importantly by a striker’s ability to beat his marker on his own. This conjecture is supported by the struggles that some ‘fox-in-the-box’ players, such as Javier Hernández, face in modern game.

It is difficult to predict Welbeck’s future given that he has played out of position for much of his time at United. Welbeck’s conversion rate of 25 per cent and shot accuracy of 53 per cent do suggest that enough raw finishing ability is available to the Gunners. What is clear from the analysis, however, is that he must shoot and dribble more often. This should come with more game time and greater confidence. There is every chance that United will come to regret the move.

All data from Squawka
Assumptions dictating linear regression have not been held strict

van Gaal ushers in a brave new tactical dawn

July 24, 2014 Tags: , Opinion 10 comments
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While the 7-0 scoreline spoke amply to its effectiveness, it was Manchester United’s tactical complexity that astounded in Louis Van Gaal’s debut against LA Galaxy on Wednesday night. The veteran manager’s strategy was far more intricate and exotic than any employed by David Moyes’ yet the team carried out the plan with remarkable fluidly despite an unfamiliar back-three system.

The complexity of the approach fed through to the media, with morning reports varying in their analysis of van Gaal’s system from 5-3-2 to 5-2-3 and 3-5-2. The latter being much more accurate given how advanced Luke Shaw and Antonio Valencia were, while United’s wing-backs did not defend in line with the centre back trio of Johnny Evans, Phil Jones and Chris Smalling.

In the middle Darren Fletcher, captain for the day, partnered new signing Ander Herrera, with Juan Mata completing the midfield triangle, while Wayne Rooney and Danny Welbeck made a pair up-front.

The Netherlands’ World Cup template bears significant resemblance; one born of van Gaal’s need to cover for the lack of midfield options after Kevin Strootman’s knee injury. United is in a similar situation, with Michael Carrick out for 12 weeks. Perhaps more significant still, the Dutchman’s system also allows the Reds to do without the perpetually under-performing wingers. 3-5-2 makes a lot of sense.

Much of United’s play against Galaxy was channeled down the left where Shaw showcased some of the talent that cost United £30 million. The youngster spent much of his 45 minutes in the Galaxy half and Evans often advanced to fill in the gap at wing-back, while Smalling and Phil Jones shuttled across to cover. Jones was brave in defending as he shunned the temptation to hold his central place to close down the flanks.

United held a high line and pressed relatively heavily, starting in attacking midfield areas – another transition from the Moyes era. Fletcher was impressive in orchestrating the defence, while the close control of Mata and Herrera allowed United to navigate through the central midfield congestion. Indeed, it was the new recruit from the Athletic Bilbao who was the most impressive in van Gaal’s first game in charge.

The Reds set up relatively wide, with wing-backs bombing forward and the midfield duo often isolated. The mobility of Herrera, however, allowed United to completely dominate the centre of the park against a physically fitter opposition. The Spaniard was brave enough, and had the skills, to receive the ball in tight spots and keep United moving. He must watch his Scholesian tackling though.

Up front, United was less impressive despite scoring seven. Rooney was largely quiet – two goals aside – as his runs were rarely found. Mata’s preferred central role allowed him to pop up in various places – and combine neatly with the two forwards and Herrera – but United’s strikers kept running into each others zones. It’s a problem that will be cleared once the team has clocked up some minutes on the training ground.

Indeed, there were some glaring weaknesses that stronger sides might exploit. Smalling’s distribution was alarmingly wasteful and the ball was more or less forced down the left with the Englishman continually losing possession on the right side of United’s back three.

Valencia also had an ineffectual night despite being found in promising positions several times. As it has become the norm the Ecuadorian captain rarely threatened with crossing opportunities. Albeit against a fully routed opposition in the second half, Rafael da Silva was much more exciting.

The back-three is also a cause for much concern. Galaxy had some joy attacking down the channels, though some of it due to the inherent weakness of any three-at-the-back system, especially as Evans and Smalling seemed uncomfortable dealing with threats out wide. Shaw and Rafael’s acclimatisation into the system, alongside better defensive cover, will help. A new classy holding midfielder might yet arrive to shore up United’s defending.

The crucial issue, though, is United’s ability to navigate the opposition’s press. Smalling’s poor distribution rendered United predictable and Herrera cannot be expected on to run his way past opposition every single game.

While van Gaal said that he wants “to play with two strikers” there is adequate attacking cover – Shinji Kagawa, Mata and Adnan Januzaj and four strikers are all available to the Dutchman. This summer’s priority is a central defender who is comfortable on the ball.

Still, the Dutchman is brave despite complaining about the imbalance of “four number tens.” The Dutchman, ever pragmatic, might yet dabble with a strikerless formation to accommodate as many as possible.

This bravery showed in the formation. Mata was in line with Rooney and Welbeck in the defensive phase, and though the Spaniard started the match relatively deep, he increasingly spent time in more advanced areas once Herrera established dominance in central midfield. Certainly, neither Welbeck nor Rooney was deployed as a permanent number nine – and while it might be a step too far to describe van Gaal’s system as as “3-4-3-0” – few reports have truly captured the nuances of United’s new approach.

United’s upcoming match against AS Roma will present a sterner test, of course. It’ll be a better look at Van Gaal’s tactical outlook too. Yet, putting seven past a fully fit side with only two training sessions on the clock does bode well for the future.

In fact, with Nani and Ashley Young fit, van Gaal could have opted for a more conventional system. The fact that he is continuing with the summer’s 3-5-2 system demonstrates a level of bravery that Moyes always lacked.

Data Rant: box-to-box midfielders

July 12, 2014 Tags: Data 15 comments
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The soon-to-depart midfielder Anderson was converted from a typical advanced playmaker to an ‘eight’ by Sir Alex Ferguson – the rationale being that the Brazilian has all the attributes of a great box-to-box midfielder. Anderson has not lived up to a promising first season at Old Trafford after joining in 2007, leaving Manchester United short of attacking thrust from central midfield for the past seven years.

Ferguson could afford to get by on a functional midfield partly due to Michael Carrick and Paul Scholes’ excellent passing, but mostly due to a reliance on high-flying wingers. Cristiano Ronaldo’s sheer explosiveness helped mask a pedestrian midfield, while Antonio Valencia, for a while at least, consistently provided dangerous crosses from the right.

That Valencia has suffered two poor seasons in a row, while Ashley Young and Nani face an uncertain future at Old Trafford, says something about the degradation in that department. Luke Shaw and Rafael are exciting young fullbacks, but they are limited by their position on the pitch. Yet, having thoroughly figured out 5-3-2 at the World Cup, Louis Van Gaal might even do away with wingers entirely if he is to get the best out of his United squad.

Central midfielders, therefore, must break the lines to provide attacking impetus from midfield; Ander Herrera has been recruited for that task. The question of whether United actually needs such a player remains though. After all, direct football, such as that employed by Netherlands in Brazil this summer, tends to bypass the middle entirely.

In this Data Rant we look at the best dribbler from each Premier League side’s central midfield then see if their skills have any correlation with points the player’s team earned last season. In figure 1, below, there seems to be little relationship between the two. That is, having a good dribbler in the engine room is not strongly related to winning games.

Figure-1: Dribbles vs Points

Notice, however, that six points are clearly distinguishable from the rest in upper-middle areas – those belong to the top six sides. With these clubs removed, in figure 2, the correlation is stronger. In addition, United is now an outlier – the Reds are the best of the bad bunch and the worst of the good.

Figure-2: Dribbles vs Points

The fact that United’s best midfield dribbler is Tom Cleverley, and that the Reds had the worst such player in the Premier League is, in a sense, interesting. From a purely box-to-box point of view, the Reds should have ranked lower in the table. Put simply, there are other factors that make up for the lack of an all action midfielder.

In figure 3, below, the top four lie above the blue line. It is that line van Gaal’s United must aim for in the coming season. Notice the horizontal spread between these clubs. There are significant gaps between City, Chelsea, Liverpool and Arsenal’s best midfield runners, despite little differences in points. This is another piece of evidence that on-the-ball running is not an important a factor in winning football matches.

Figure-3:  Dribbles vs Points

This conclusion runs against intuition, of course. When a skilful midfielder is pinned down, he can work his way out of trouble, enabling his team to create an overload or attacking opportunity. Yaya Touré, for example, would not have scored twenty goals had he not been an exceptional dribbler. Meanwhile, stronger sides have to regularly break down defiant defenses. While holding on to that ball could also earn the team that last-minute set piece, it is relevant to note that any player with the ball can accomplish this feat.

Finally, in figure 4, there is a significant relationship between points and number of take-ons attempted by each Premier League club. United is about 200 take-ons short of the top four.

Figure-4:  Take Ons vs Points

Juan Mata chalked up 52 in his last full season at Chelsea, while Herrera supplied 73 for Athletic in 2013/14. Provided the pair performs to that level in the coming season United should dribble its way into a stronger position in the Premier League table.

This bodes well for Ander’s impact at Old Trafford. United was deficient in many things last season, but at the very least, David Moyes was short an Ander Herrera.

All data from Squawka
A brief note on methodology:
1) All categories are weighted equally
2) Each figure has been adjusted relative to the ‘best’ in each category
3) Assumptions dictating linear regression have not been held strict