Liverpool! Oh My God, Liverpool!

It's a holiday mailbag, and it's filled with soccer

I asked for questions. You sent me questions. I have answered a small percentage of your questions! Thanks to everyone who took the time to send one in; I wish I could’ve gotten to all of them, but the long-term viability of this endeavor is emboldened by the fact that I could not respond to every inquiry. Also, the sheer volume of inquiry means that I will do this again, and maybe again, and perhaps again and again and again.

OK -- you guys are great. Time for the questions ...

My entire emotional health is dependent on Liverpool (and has been for some time now). I realize this year, with City as machine-like as they are, may not be our year, but if not now, when? I guess what I’m asking is, do you think there is a limited window with this Liverpool team or can I be happy and optimistic forever?

—Justin

I just finished reading The Undoing Project by Michael Lewis. It’s about a pair of no-good never-amounted-to-anything Israeli psychologists, Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, who, uh, undid all of the established thinking related to human decision-making. Rational beings create rational markets -- yeah, no, they said. Kahneman won the Nobel prize in 2002, and he and Tversky essentially created the field of behavioral economics. The book doubles as a love story between two genius-level collaborators with very little in common: Kahneman was open to every line of inquiry and prone to doubting himself after even the most misguided hint of criticism, while Tversky was the guy everyone at the party wanted to talk to and he willed himself to toward a self-assured, positive worldview. As Lewis writes: “When you are a pessimist and the bad thing happens, you live it twice, Amos liked to say. Once when you worry about it, and the second time when it happens.”

So, to Justin and his/my fellow Liverpool fans, my advice (to myself, I guess, too?) is to try to be more like Amos.

In Jurgen Klopp, Liverpool have one of the best managers in the world. They have a forward-thinking front office that 1) hired that manager, and 2) built a squad that a) is one of the five-youngest in the Premier League, and b) IS CURRENTLY SIX POINTS AHEAD OF THE SECOND-PLACE TEAM IN THE LEAGUE, WHICH IS NOT EVEN MANCHESTER CITY!

In the first actual mailed-out newsletter I sent to you all, I wrote, “In other words, if Liverpool hadn’t given up a single shot this whole season, City would still have created a better balance of chances.” In the three games since then, the opposite is true:

Over the past week, City have been smited by The God of Bangers, as they’ve conceded a handful of once-in-a-career goals, most notably when Crystal Palace’s Andros Townsend, who has yet to meet a long-range shot he wasn’t able to launch deep into the stands, temporarily mastered the fields of physics and alchemy all at once:

But despite some conceded goals that are likely never to repeat themselves, City really haven’t been much better than mediocre when you take everything into account. Over the past three games, they’ve scored six goals and conceded six across one win and two losses. The defensive drop-off was perhaps predictable, as Mark Thompson of Football Whispers showed earlier this month. Fernandinho, City’s defensive midfielder, was suddenly attempting way more tackles and interceptions than he was earlier in the season, which suggested that the team wasn’t as effective in defending higher up the field:

Theoretically, that also might explain the sputtering attack -- winning the ball higher up the field typically creates more scoring opportunities -- but over this most-recent three-game spell, City have been pressing more effectively than they have all year. In fact -- and this is going to sound ridiculous, given the purpose of this sport -- during the current downturn, City have still been great at everything ... other than creating and conceding chances. For my nerds out there: a handful of analysts have created non-shot xG models that sum up the values of all the non-shot things that happen near or in the penalty area. Per FiveThirtyEight: “For example, we know that intercepting the ball at the opposing team’s penalty spot results in a goal about 9 percent of the time, and a completed pass that is received at the center of the six-yard box leads to a goal about 14 percent of the time.” According to these numbers, City’s xG for is 7.7, compared to an xG against of 2.3 over the last three games.

So! I’d expect City to bounce back soon -- their players and their manager and their squad depth is just too excellent for them no to. But even if they do, man, it really might just be too late. Liverpool rode their luck in a number of early-season matches, but over the last 10 Premier League games they’ve been the best team in the league -- by points, goal differential, expected points, expected goal differential, you name your all-encompassing statistic.

Even if you despise numbers and think City -- or Tottenham! -- are a better team than Liverpool, the Reds are still -- and yes, it makes me extremely anxious to type this -- heavy favorites. As John, the above tweeeter, put it: they’re all running a 100-meter sprint and one team has a five-meter start. They’re the betting favorites now, too:

Liverpool fans have reason to be absolutely frightened right now -- I refuse to go into detail about why; read this for more information, you sicko -- but I say forget about all the ways it could go wrong, and just imagine all of the (statistically probable!) ways it could go right. Then, if Liverpool do take this thing over the finish line, you’ll get to experience it twice.

Pls discuss Fergie’s apex Man U stats and tactics a bit? I feel in the wake of Jose’s dismissal most are overstating the notion that Man U is expected to be offensive/constructive bc of the Fergie years. I seem to recall a lot of Tevez and Rooney playing additional fullbacks?

Beniamino

This is one I’ve never quite understood. For the uninitiated, Manchester United won 13 Premier League titles (more than double the guy in second) and two Champions League trophies in 17 seasons under Sir Alex Ferguson. The team hasn’t won a title since he left, as they’ve cycled through a trio of famously conservative managers in his stead. In response, there’s been a line of thinking that suggests that United have faltered for the past half-decade because they’ve gone away from some kind of ideal “United way” where the team always played proactive, attacking soccer.

That ... is not true! Did they have plenty of obscenely talented attacking players? Absolutely, they did; that’s just what happens when you’re one of the three richest clubs in the world. But the defining characteristic of Sir Alex’s teams isn’t fluid, high-flying offense; no it’s how often and how suddenly they changed. “Perhaps Sir Alex Ferguson's greatest gift, certainly the one that has maintained him at the top of the British game for 35 years, has been his ability to evolve,” wrote The Guardian’s Jonathan Wilson during Ferguson’s last season at United. “No side he has managed has ever been good enough to satisfy him; he has always been willing to cut and adapt.” I mean, the guy once played this lineup against Arsenal in the F.A. Cup. It’s like Bill Belichick rolling out the Wing-T in the AFC playoffs against Peyton Manning’s Colts. Six of these players are defenders!

If anything, Fergie’s tactical philosophy was “I don’t have a tactical philosophy.” You’re probably not gonna replicate that in today’s game, and you’re definitely not gonna replicate the club structure under him, as he basically had total control over transfers, too. My advice to United: Stop romanticizing the past, and go get yourself a Director of Football.

As a new soccer (football) fan, here's something I find puzzling that I can't get clear guidance on: People claim there's a tactical revolution in English football inspired by Klopp, Pep, and Pochettino. If so, what exactly is this tactical revolution? Is it an adoption of Kloppian tactics or Guardiolian tactics? And is there, in fact, any difference between the two?

—Vijay

There’s a revolution insofar as all of these managers are now coaching in England, and therefore they coach a lot of English players, and so the English national team is able to play in a way that vaguely resembles the tactics of Klopp, Pep, and Pochettino. I’m not sure I’m seeing that revolution anywhere else in England, though.

What Klopp, Pochettino, and Pep have in common is that their teams all play physically demanding styles that require all 11 players to defend aggressively high up the field. That’s where they’re linked together on the tactical tree, but then each one branches off in a different direction. The simplest way to explain the difference between Klopp and Pep, as outlined in this video from Tifo Football, is to say that Klopp wants his team to control space, and Pep wants his team to control possession:

Klopp’s teams typically try to win the ball back soon after they lose it, and then attack the unsettled defense that had begun transitioning into its own attack. Pep’s teams try to win the ball back soon after they lose it, and then they keep possession in a very structured manner -- be sure break out the phrase “juego de posicion” if you want to dress up as an insufferable soccer fan next Halloween -- and wait until they find a positional advantage somewhere on the field (say, a 3v2), and only then do they attack the defense. Klopp’s chaotic style is basically built to destroy Guardiola’s pre-planned structures, and most of the time, that’s what happens. But in their scoreless draw earlier this year, both sides came about as close as they possible could to staring at the ball as it sat in the middle of the center circle for 90 minutes. Given how close they were in the standings, I would’ve probably predicted a similar outcome for next Thursday’s re-match in Manchester, but now that City are suddenly seven points back, that game comes close to being a must-win for Pep’s team, so they’re going to have to take some chances and try to attack. And that plays right into Klopp’s hands.

What is your favourite football themed song and why is it Zinedine Zidane by Vaudeville Smash?

—Kristofer

Way too easy:

This is my fight song. My played-at-my-funeral song.

If you could change one rule in soccer, what would it be?

For me, move the penalty spot back to the top of the box:

Pros:
-games less likely to get decided by one rinky-dink foul on the edge of the box or fluke handball (drives me nuts)
-assuming penalty percentage moves closer to 50% instead of 75%, half a goal is still adequate punishment for most fouls in the box.
-penalty shoot-outs still dramatic (maybe more entertaining in some regards because you need a better shot to score), but no devastating life-long mental anguish for any particular player that misses.

Cons:

-no more panenkas

—Seph

I really like Seph’s suggestion, and I find all of the pros to be well-thought-out and pretty convincing. Love to diminish devastating life-long mental anguish where possible! But I wanna talk about a guy named Jim Paglia. Back in the early 90’s, when FIFA granted the U.S. the 1994 World Cup, it came with the stipulation that the country must also found its own Division One soccer league. That league eventually became Major League Soccer, but there was another bidder involved: Paglia’s League 1 America, which was a “soccer” league based on only the broadest definition of “soccer”. Paglia felt that, to the majority of Americans, soccer was a fun game to play, but not a fun game to watch. So, to his mind, in order to maximize a soccer league’s commercial viability, the rules didn’t need to just be tweaked. No, they needed to thrown in a blender, given a handful of hallucinatory pharmaceuticals, and spit back out in Kool-Aid-colored glory. Take it from The Guardian:

The game being proposed saw the pitch divided coloured chevrons, limiting certain players’ movements within these zones. Players would also wear different coloured shirts based on their positions to help distinguish the zones they were allowed to enter – red for defenders, blue for midfielders, yellow for forwards, white for strikers. (Defenders, diagrams showed, could only go 45 yards from the opposition’s goal but 15 yards from their own goal, for example.) In order to monitor whether a player had entered an unpermitted zone, eight officials would be present, and each player would wear an electronic signalling device that would set off a series of buzzers and lights in the high tech stadiums.

There would also be a points based system, so long-range goals would be worth more. These points ranged from one for a striker to three for a defender, and a team could earn an extra half point if their player scored between the posts of the traditional-sized goal and a new, larger outer goal that was being proposed.

This outer goal, the plans hoped, would make games more difficult for modern day goalkeepers. “When goalposts were first designed, the average English goalkeeper was 5ft 7in,” Paglia explains, “whereas today the average keeper is over 6ft tall.”

Instead of halves, games would be split into three 20-minute periods. Each team had to change some part of lineup between the first and second period; in the third period they could use a the first period’s lineup, the second period’s lineup, or a completely new line-up altogether.

The MLS bid, of course, won, and the league just wrapped up its 23rd season. They’ve done some wacky shit, too, though. For the first few years, there were no ties and every deadlocked match was decided with this madness:

So, if the league happened to be looking to attempt another “progressive” rule change, I’d like to see them re-shape the penalty box. The average penalty is converted around 76 percent of time, while at the World Cup this summer, fouls that led to penalties happened in locations where, on average, a goal is scored only 30 percent of the time. As Michael Lopez, who’s now the Director of Data and Analytics at the NFL, pointed out this summer, that’s the equivalent of a penalty that takes a team from 1st-and-10 on their own 30 all the way up to first-and-goal at the one-yard line. A healthy society limits its disproportionately punitive punishments!

Do you enjoy watching this PSG team? Is Mbappé being wasted by playing in Ligue 1 and turned into a cynical douche by playing with Neymar?

—Sam

PSG is my favorite team to watch! I’m not mad, I’m just excited! Under new manager Thomas Tuchel, to my mind they play with the highest degree of difficulty of any team in the world. The high-speed passing combinations they use to break down the opposition midfield require an incredible amount of precision, creativity, and player-to-player understanding. It’s breathtaking -- they’re picking a lock while running 40-yard dash, they’re sprinting blind-folded through a maze made of barbed wire -- and it’s beautiful.

Listen, I know Neymar rolls around a lot and over-exaggerates all the time, but he also weighs, give or take, 45 pounds and gets fouled as much as anyone. (One of Eden Hazard’s thighs weighs more than Neymar’s entire body, so you’re not allowed to use that as a counter-argument.) He’s met all of the absurd expectations everyone had for him when he went from Brazil to Barcelona as a 21-year-old. He’s one of the five best players in the world! My default instinct: Give the guy a break.

As for Mbappe being wasted, I wouldn’t say so. There are definitely more competitive domestic leagues he could play in, and if that’s something that matters to him, then by all means, Kylian, live your bliss. At the same time, though, Mbappe is so freaking good and his transfer fee would be so prohibitively large that any team he goes to would likely be the dominant team in its league because 1) they’re rich enough to afford Mbappe in the first place, and 2) they’d then have Mbappe! So, sure, PSG have 14-point lead in France, and they’re way, way, way better than everyone else in Ligue 1, but Mbappe is getting paid a ton of money, he’s putting up ridiculous numbers, he’s getting to wear Jordan jerseys, and he’s playing for the team that every soccer-loving teen and/or hypebeast now worships. Also, PSG just topped a Champions League group that included the second-best team in Italy and the league leaders in England. If anything, from afar I enjoy the added narrative tension that this specific team takes on. Until they win the Champions League, PSG won’t ever be widely respected. RINGZ OR DIE. That’s just how this is going to work -- whether or not it should. And so, PSG’s playing style mirrors its place in the European soccer hierarchy: There’s essentially no margin for error.

My question for you is around using XG to consider manager reputations, mused by some arguments about Wenger and reviews of Favre, and above all by [Mike] Goodman's take on Mourinho as having always walked in to fantastic defenses by talent. So I guess what I'm wondering is if there is a way to look at the XG during a manager's tenure within the frame of the league standard for the same time, and compare it to something (perhaps the transfer market value of the team, or the club revenue as a percentage of the league average) as another comparison to the league average, to consider how much a manager is contributing value. Obviously some of this is luck (Leicester) so it would be better with more years of data, looking at Wenger or Simeone or Mourinho or Guardiola over their careers, so it's a ton of math and I don't know that the data exists. But it would be fascinating to see who outperformed their squad value or team finances, purely in terms of XG (not actual results), by normalizing the XG produced per $ as compared with the league average. Super nerdy, maybe interesting!

—David

I do not have the mathematical or computational skills -- in fact, I don’t even necessarily know the difference between “mathematical” and “computational”; is it a circle-square situation? -- to figure this out. If you’re reading this, and you do possess the necessary, definitionally confounding set of skills to run these comparisons, then please go for it! Also, please keep sending me your super nerdy, maybe interesting ideas or your not nerdy, definitely interesting ones, or any other combination across that spectrum.

Can I add anything of value here? Shout-out to Eibar. Per Transfermarkt, their entire squad of 23 players is only worth about €77.6 million, which is roughly what Zinedine Zidane’s transfer from Juventus to Real Madrid cost ... in 2001. (Think of that number as a rough approximation of the talent at a club.) That total team value isn’t among the top 100 of club teams across the world, but in FiveThirtyEight’s rating system, Eibar is all the way up to 19th, one spot behind Arsenal’s €604.5 million squad. They press way more aggressively than any team in Europe, and while they’re running a minus-four goal differential in La Liga, their xG differential is on the positive side of the ledger. Manager José Luis Mendilibar has been steering Eibar’s speedboat since July 2015, and he’s never finished below 13th, including two top 10 finishes in the past two seasons. I bet he’d show well in that hypothetical study, and a bigger club should give him a serious look.

How have you seen analytics change the way the game of soccer is played in the past few years?  Has the effect been similar to that of the NBA, where teams are playing differently, taking different shots and everything?  And if so, in what ways?

Further, if someone wanted to dive deeper into soccer analytics, where would you point him?

—Hayden

I don’t think analytics has really changed the way the game is played too much yet. In basketball, it’s 3s and layups. In baseball, it’s homers and walks. And in football, it’s all but doing away with running the ball. But since soccer is such a fluid and dynamic sport, it’s hard — and who knows, maybe impossible — to break it down into component parts in order to optimize it.

At least in terms of publicly available numbers, most of the developed analytics do a pretty good of telling us what’s happening (or what should have happened), but while something like expected goals can, in theory, show a manager that his tactics are working despite some unlucky results (or vice versa), they can’t really tell a manager what his tactics should be in the first place. Plus, analytics people at clubs still don’t really have much influence, especially on a day-to-day basis. Almost every team employs numbers people, but that doesn’t mean they have to listen to them. The Ringer’s Kevin Clark just wrote a huge piece on the NFL’s nascent analytics movement; go read that and then imagine soccer as being something like 15-20 years behind.

The one big change you’ve seen is that in pretty much every major league, the average distance from goal on shots has declined in each of the past few seasons. Shots from outside the box look cool as hell when they end up in the net, but they rarely do. If you decide to let one rip from 30 yards out, you’re killing a possession for what’s likely to be no more than a five-percent chance and you’re ensuring that your team doesn’t create a better opportunity. It’s been a minor change in yardage -- you have to go a few decimal places out in order to notice it --  but it’s still a steady one. It certainly feels like we’re not seeing as many thunderbastards (oh, you bet your ass that’s the technical term) anymore.

If you want to learn more about soccer analytics, I’d check out Statsbomb (they’re the best at this) to get a sense of what’s possible and new ways to look at the game, and I’d also thumb through the old posts from 21st Club. As for numbers themselves: Understat has all the xG info, WhoScored has all of the major on-ball offensive and defense stats, and FBRef has some easily sortable tables that will only get better as they spend more time on the site.

How would you run US soccer (youth to pros) if you were in charge?

David

This questions needs its own, year-long series of individual newsletters. But these are the things I’d want to focus on: 1) Pay the men and women equally; no more field-turf bullshit, either. 2) Remove the barrier to entry from youth soccer; it’s expensive to play for a good club team (unless you’re a boy in a MLS academy), and so as you get older, the player pool becomes whiter and more affluent; every kid should have the chance to play for a competitive club team, no matter their parents’ income. 3) Encourage unstructured play; almost every high-level professional player played a ton of pickup soccer growing up; it’s how you learn to love the game and it’s where you learn to be creative; plus, it’s healthy; 12-year-olds don’t need to be playing high-pressure games every weekend; participation-trophy-shaming is why we suck at soccer (comparatively); liquidate that surplus and build futsal courts in a bunch of low-income areas. 4) Invest in quality coaching; kids need to learn how to pass and move and control the ball in every direction and every situation before they can make the kind of in-game decisions they’ll eventually need to make; they don’t need some blowhard telling them to wack it long because their striker hit puberty early and can run faster than anyone else on the field; coaching from the under-10 to under-16 level is probably more important than at any other point in a soccer player’s life, and the quality of coaching across age groups in the U.S. doesn’t match that.

My biggest issue with the U.S. Soccer Federation is that it’s been run like a business, and in that sense, it’s been incredibly successful because it’s been incredibly profitable. But just because something is good for U.S. Soccer doesn’t mean that it’s good for American soccer. Development is expensive, but it’s also the whole point.

As a fellow Liverpool fan, are you also experiencing deep, complicated emotions over the layout and head shot choices in the Guardian's top 100 players list?

Patrick

Everyone is just really taking this success in stride, huh? Liverpool sold Philippe Coutinho to Barcelona last January. Virgil van Dijk joined Liverpool from Southampton last January. Since last January, Liverpool made it to the Champions League final and then finished the first half of this Premier League season six points ahead of second place. I will say no more.

Happy New Year to all y’all and all of your loved ones. I’m still blown away by the response to this thing, and I’m excited to see where it goes in 2019. As I said last time: If you enjoyed this, please subscribe! And please pass on the word to anyone you know who might be interested. Call your boyfriend. Tell your girlfriend. Inform your mortal enemy. Everyone is welcome … unless you’re a fascist — in which case, get the hell outta here! Thanks, as always, to all you non-fascists for reading along.