Are We Sure Pep Guardiola Is Good?

Plus, what to do about Crystal Palace? And when should Liverpool win the league?


We’re going mailbag today because I am, according to certain contemporary definitions of the word, an oligarch. Paid subscribers sent in their questions, and I answered the first three to appear. Want to become a paid subscriber? Click below:

Thanks to everyone who sent in a question, and thanks to anyone who’s reading. I love you all.

How do you fix Crystal Palace?

First off, shoutout to Michael for getting his question in just two minutes after my email hit his inbox. Given that he was able to fire off his prompt so quickly, I’m going to assume a chain of things: Crystal Palace were top of Michael’s mind, which means that Michael is either a part-owner or a fan of Crystal Palace. If it’s the former, congratulations on being rich. That seems cool. If it’s the latter, then, well, I’m sorry.

Give a quick scan to the table, and you may be confused by Michael’s question. Since being promoted to the Premier League back in 2013, Palace have never finished above 10th or below 15th. Their average final-table spot is about 12th. They’re currently on 30 points and in 14th, which means they’re one point back of 10th-place Arsenal. Given the inherent randomness in all things, being just two spots back of your average place in the table doesn’t seem particularly meaningful, and it certainly doesn’t seem worthy of a rapid-fire email plea.

However! Crystal Palace have the fifth-worst expected goal differential in the league. They’ve scored the fewest goals in the league (23), and generated the second-fewest expected goals (24, just ahead of Newcastle’s 20.3). On top of that, the team is really old. Per Transfermarkt, their squad has the oldest average age of any team in the league, as the average player has spent 29.7 years on this planet. In fact, they’re the oldest team in Transfermarkt’s 100 most-valuable teams in the world. Reminder: a soccer player’s peak years are typically around 24 to 28. If the roster remains roughly the same, a collective drop-off is on the way, and any further slippage down the table likely means a relegation battle for Roy Hodgson and Co.

So, the two challenges ahead for Palace are: 1) get younger, and 2) get some attackers. To do that, though, you need money. Crystal Palace are in the Deloitte Money League rankings for the third consecutive year, but they’ve dropped down to 30th, which is the final spot in the list. Their ignominious achievement has since been surpassed, but Palace’s massive financial loss in 17-18 was driven mainly by a lack of player sales:

Palace’s revenue only increased by €5 million, and they didn’t make any big sales again this past season, so I’d imagine that there’ll be another loss found whenever someone savvier than me digs into Palace’s financials for 18-19. For 2017-18, they were paying the ninth-highest average salaries -- behind the Top Six, Everton, and Leicester. That’s “best of the rest” territory, but that’s clearly not what this team is. And given the age of the side, it’s not like they’ve got a bunch of money locked up in players who are going to get better. Most of their key players are already near the end of their peaks, if not already out of them. Football finances are purposefully opaque, so who the hell really knows how this is gonna go, but given that the club is losing money and that they’re paying a bunch of it to aging players, it seems safe to assume that the club doesn’t currently have the kind of money available to overhaul the squad and bring in the kind of young, proven-ish attackers who’d immediately give the team a boost.

So, uh, what the hell do they do? Frankly, you probably try to sell your best players. They might’ve missed the window already, but maybe they can still convince someone to grab Wilifired Zaha, as Transfermarkt has his market value listed at $60 million. Same goes for midfielder Luka Milivojevic, who’s the club captain and who has scored 23 goals over the past two-plus seasons. He’s got a $27 million price tag on Transfermarkt, and maybe some team will pay for his production ... even though 18 of those goals came from penalties. Both of those transfer fees would be in the top-5 largest fees the club has ever received for a player. That’s a big deal. (EDIT, for clarity: They also sold Aaron Wan-Bissaka to Manchester United over the summer for £50 million, but it’s unclear how much of that they’ll be able to spend, given that their big summer signing was 28-year-old James McCarthy for £3 million.)

Now, there’s a chance it all falls apart once Zaha is gone. He’s played 51 passes into the penalty area so far this season; no one else on the team has more than 19. Palace are already among the worst shot-takers in the league -- a well-below average 0.09 xG per attempt, only better than Newcastle once again -- and if they can’t get the ball into the box, that might get even worse and they might not be able to generate the penalties that have kept the team alive at times over the past few seasons. But the attack is so bad as it is that I’m not sure 1) how much worse it can get, and 2) how much winning value Zaha is actually providing. He has three goals and three assists this season, and his underlying numbers are even worse. Hodgson’s history suggests that he can probably eke out an average defense out of whoever he’s given, so the way out of this for Palace is to find some money somewhere and then re-invest it in some 24-ish-year-olds who can create shots for their teammates or put the ball into the net. 

Is there actually data to support that Pep is a good coach? Not a hater, just a curious Liverpool fan byeeeee.

If we want to ignore all of the trophies that he’s won or the record-setting point and goal-differential marks that all of his teams have put up or the fact that every club he’s gone to has significantly improved as soon as he arrived and significantly declined as soon as he left, then let’s see ...

I’ve talked about this before, but I’ll talk about it again. Given how wages accurately predict a team’s results, one way to try to figure out the effect of a manager is to see how well a team does compared to its wages. The consultancy 21st Club did that by using their World Super League ratings, which determines a team’s underlying quality. (Proof on concept: Liverpool are currently no. 1.) They compared a team’s predicted rating based on wages to its actual rating, and Guardiola comes out near the top of the list, adding 66 points to City’s expected rating (on a scale of 1 to 1000):

Often hailed as the world’s best coach, his ability to influence clubs is impressive considering they already punch above their weight without his presence. A non-Guardiola Bayern Munich or Manchester City averages out to an efficiency score of 47 WSL points above expected. Comparing to his Premier League counterpart, a non-Klopp Dortmund or Liverpool sits at a 12.

Putting Guardiola’s impact into financial terms, his performance boost equates to paying over £18m annually in additional player wages – more than 10 percent of Manchester City’s existing wage bill.

You can do a similar thing with the Elo ratings, by looking at how much a team’s rating improves after a coach arrives. Given that he’s only coached at top-tier clubs, Guardiola’s teams probably don’t have the same capacity for improvement as others, but here’s a nice visual of his effect:

The Elo ratings also award a “coach rating” based on a combination of the average Elo rating of a manager’s teams and how much his teams improved on average and in total. Based on that, Guardiola ... comes out as the highest-rated manager in the history of the sport. He’s never done it with a resource disadvantage, but there’s no one who’s ever better at maximizing top-level talent. 

When do you want Liverpool to win the league?

Quite frankly, I have never thought about this until right now. I am a Liverpool fan, and Liverpool will win the Premier League for the first time ever unless they suffer some kind of never-before-seen collapse that is only worth considering so as to explain just how unlikely it is that we are blissfully sliding along a timeline in which Liverpool don’t win the Premier League this season.

Not to head-fake Neil’s question -- or rather: to weakly deflect from the fact that, yes, I am head-faking Neail’s question -- I do think the idea of “Is it better to go undefeated or break the points record?” is an interesting, if pointless, question to consider. Arsenal of 2003-04 are considered “The Invincibles” because they never lost a game. In the collective imagination, they have a legit case as the best Premier League team of all time because they're the only side to never lose. Of course, that misses out on the fact that soccer has three results and not two. 

Most other sports: go undefeated, and it means you won every game. Soccer: scoring is so freaking hard that we can’t have this be a zero-sum situation or else we’d be here all day.

Despite not ever losing, Arsenal only have the eighth-most points in Premier League history. There are six other league seasons in which their exact same record would’ve resulted in a second-place, while last year they would’ve only finished third. Yet, the zero in the loss column vaults Arsenal above some of these other, better teams in our historical memory.

The crazy thing about this Liverpool season -- well, one of the never-ending list of crazy things -- is that there’s a chance fans won’t have to choose between either “undefeated” or “points record”. Sporting Index (the betting market) projects Liverpool to finish with 103 points, as does FiveThirtyEight’s model. That means the team’s median outcome is a full three points better than Pep and Co’s previous-best from 17-18. According to FiveThirtyEight, a Liverpool loss is never more than a 46-percent likelihood (away to Manchester City on April 4) in any match. A Liverpool non-loss, then, is the most likely outcome in all 13 of their remaining matches. Given the shit-happens-ness of soccer, combined with the potential for injuries and also the possible need for squad rotation as the Champions League knockout rounds kick into gear next week, Liverpool are probably going to lose at least one league game before the end of the season. They’re also probably going to win more points than any team in the history of the league. Since, as a sports fan, you’re rarely given opportunities to be greedy, I’m gonna snatch this one and say that I want Liverpool to go undefeated because 1) it’s less likely, 2) it’ll be more memorable, and 3) it’ll be fascinating to see what it does to the idea of “The Invincibles” if another team is both invincible and significantly better at winning soccer games.

So, to finally answer Neil’s question and to bring us full circle: I want Liverpool to win every game for the rest of the season. If they do that, they’ll win the title no later than after the match against on March 21st. It’s the one against Crystal Palace.