Your European Soccer Crib Sheet, 1/11 Edition Edition
Tottenham aren't title contenders, Alvaro Morata isn't what you think, and Felipe Anderson is James Harden
|Ryan O'Hanlon||Jan 11, 2019|| 11|
I don’t know why, but my impulse is to start this week’s crib sheet off by yelling, non-verbally: 2019, BABY!
Now that I’ve fulfilled that urge, scratched that itch, etc., and you’re still here, I want to ask you guys for feedback: So, can you send me some feedback? I wanna know if there’s anything you want to see more of, less of, or exactly the same of. I’ve settled on the current structure — a column-type piece on Tuesdays and a bullet-point guide for Fridays — because it seems to follow the rhythms of the soccer schedule: First removed enough from the prior weekend for a larger look at something, and then at both at the tail-end of the week’s news and right before the weekend’s games for a roundup/preview. But that could change! Or it could not! Let me know if there are other things you’d like to see — both in form and in content. Interviews? Poetry? Reckless speculation? Recipes? If you tell me there needs to be more knitwear-adjacent content, as was initially promised, I will agree with you and pre-fulfill your desire. There is not a single word of context I could provide that would make this video any better, so, I don’t know, light some candles, find somebody you care about, and just let this wash over you:
THE 1970’S, BABY.
OK — in case you’re new here (what a welcome!), this is the structure for the Friday newsletter:
The first bullet will cater toward my mother and anyone else who’s a casual soccer fan. The second one will aim toward the average fan, someone who knows the table week in and week out and also has a handle on all of the major figures of the moment. And the third and final section will be for the uber-nerd who knows all about xG and has also watched every minute of every Ricardo Quaresma YouTube video.
On to those three things …
The Table Is Lying to You, Tottenham
I’ve alluded to this the past few times I’ve written about the ongoing up-and-downs of the Manchester City–Liverpool title bout. You may have been wondering, If Manchester City are title contenders, and if Tottenham are only two points back of Manchester City, then aren’t Tottenham, by definition, title contenders? Perhaps, but probably not.
Let’s start with the projections: FiveThirtyEight’s model gives Spurs … a two-percent chance of winning the Premier League. Don’t wanna take the word of an unfeeling algorithm with a multi-thousand-word methodology? Here’s how the bettors, who are (heh) better at projecting these things than anyone else, feel: They’ve got Tottenham finishing 12 points back of both City and Liverpool.
OK, so we’ve established that Spurs are likely to tail off as the season wears on, but why? They don’t take enough shots, they don’t take enough good shots, they concede too many shots, and they concede too many good shots. A simple look at the raw numbers of shots, paired with expected goals (which, again, basically tells you how many goals a team should score and concede based on the shots they take and allow), pretty clearly shows how far behind Tottenham are:
So! Unless Tottenham drastically improve their balance of chances over the final 17 games and both City and Liverpool notably drop off, they’re probably not winning the title. The transfer window is open for the rest of the month, meaning teams can buy and sell players for the next few weeks (think of it like the NBA trade deadline, except if teams couldn’t start trading until the New Year), and so Tottenham could, in theory, improve their roster. And well, let’s just say that “in theory” is doing a Herculean amount of work to hold up the rest of the sentence.
Over the summer, the rest of England’s so-called Big Six — Liverpool, City, Chelsea, Arsenal, and Manchester United — all spent at least £64 million on players to improve their squads. Hell, Liverpool spent about £164 million! Guess how much Tottenham spent. Less than a Rolls Royce, less than a pack of Rollos or Rolaids, less than a roll of pennies, less than literally anything with even the smallest bit of monetary value because they literally spent ZERO POUNDS.
Why? Well, they’re building themselves a new stadium, and the costs have spiraled out of control. “It seems a long time ago that £400m was the ballpark figure. Then, it became £750m and £850m, and now, nobody would be surprised if it reached a billion,” wrote The Guardian’s David Hytner … in April of last year. Tottenham were supposed to move into the new stadium at the beginning of this season, but the date keeps getting pulled farther out of reach, like a dollar on a string. The most recent update: mid-March. But based on how things are going, “mid-March” could mean “not until next season” or “lol, PSYCH! there is no stadium, you idiots.”
So, no love to the Tottenham execs. They also famously don’t pay their players competitively, which isn’t some kind of Moneyball genius, but rather just a way to keep costs down. They aren’t quite as wealthy as those other five clubs, but this is still one of the 12 richest teams in the world.
However, much love to Mauricio Pochettino, the manager who’s changed the team’s tactics (they used to play the Wing-T, but they’re like an Air Raid NFL offense now) to fit the thinning squad, and to the trio of Son Heung-min, Harry Kane, and Christian Eriksen, who all played at the World Cup this summer and barely got to have an offseason, but have still been on fire this campaign, combining for 26 goals on chances worth just around 19 xG. Even though they’re likely pretend contenders for first, this season has still been remarkable. FiveThirtyEight gives them an 88 percent chance of landing in the top four and qualifying for next season’s Champions League, and the bettors have them nine points clear of fifth place. Beating Manchester United on Sunday — watch this game if you’re only gonna watch one soccer game this weekend — would be a big step toward making sure those predix come true.
Maybe they’ll finish the stadium one day, and Tottenham will make a bunch more money and buy a bunch of new players to make a real run at first. Or maybe Eriksen and Pochettino and others will leave for more lucrative roles elsewhere, as the latest rumors suggest. For now, though, third-place won’t produce a trophy, but I think it’s worthy of one.
That’s Not a Good Idea, Chelsea
There’s probably no bigger divide between the underlying numbers and public opinion than there is with Chelsea’s Alvaro Morata. I hesitate to speak for an entire fanbase — you know what? No, I don’t. I’m confident enough to paint with a broad brush on this one: Chelsea fans really don’t like Alvaro Morata! It seems like he’s always missing big chances, there’s no real physical exuberance in the way he plays (in other words, he doesn’t look confident), and he doesn’t contribute much to game-play other than the shots he takes and the occasional chance he’ll create for a teammate. And if all he does is shoot, and he can’t score, then what the hell are we even doing??????
Of course, in order to miss enough sitters for someone on the Internet to create “Morata Miss Compilation 17/18”, you have to keep getting in position for enough sitters for someone on the Internet to create “Morata Miss Compilation 17/18”. The data company Opta has a stat called “big chances,” which they define as a “ situation where a player should reasonably be expected to score, usually in a one on one scenario or from very close range when the ball has a clear path to goal and there is low to moderate pressure on the shooter.” Last year’s Premier League leader in big chances missed? Mohamed Salah, who also set the record for goals scored in a 38-game Premier League season last year! In third? Harry Kane! One thing all great goal-scorers have in common: They miss a ton of seemingly easy chances.
It’s inarguable that when Morata plays, he creates goals. Last year in the Premier League, he was seventh with 0.74 goals+assists per 90 minutes. And in the three years prior — two with Juventus and one with Real Madrid — he was even better, going 0.88, 0.87, and 1.21 in consecutive seasons. This year, Morata’s goal-scoring rate is actually the same as the year before, but he’s yet to register an assist, so he’s down to 0.48 G+A. However, his underlying performance is still among the best in England. Numbers, via Football Whispers, are among players who’ve played at least 900 minutes:
I’m not going to tell you that Morata is actually one of the six best attacking players in the Premier League; there’s more to the game than shots you take and the chances you create, and most of the other people on that list have played more minutes than Morata has. He’s only 25, but he’s still yet to play much more than 2000 minutes in a domestic season; last year’s 2,061 were a career-high, and prior to that, he hadn’t eclipsed 1,500. It’s certainly weird that Morata has barely been able to establish himself as a starter despite, frankly, elite attacking numbers whenever he plays. And it really does feel like it’s getting to the point where enough different managers have been frustrated with him that there’s more to it than “Hey, he scores goals when he plays, so … play him, you dummy!” Maybe if he was actually given a long leash and allowed to crank out 30-plus starts in a season, his rate of production would fall off a cliff. But maybe your eyes are lying to you and just because Morata looks hopeless it doesn’t mean he actually is. That sounds silly, but Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey has tried to limit the time his scouts spend actually watching prospects because their minds tend to jump to conclusions right away and then those initial impressions stick. Just because someone looks good, it doesn’t mean he is, and vice versa.
Whatever the case with Morata, Chelsea seem desperate to sell him in January, as he’s fallen out of the starting XI and hasn’t scored in the Premier League since early November. I really don’t know what I would do about him — I’m not at the training ground every day! These are people, not data points! I don’t know why I’m yelling again! — but I know what I wouldn’t do. The latest reports have Chelsea bringing in 31-year-old AC Milan striker Gonzalo Higuain to replace Morata. Here’s another chart (per 90 minutes), ordered by Higuain’s age at the beginning of each season:
I turned 30 last February. I know which way that line keeps pointing.
Shout-out to You, Felipe Anderson
One of the easiest ways to minimize risk in identifying new players is to … sign players from teams that are better than your team. An obvious but seemingly necessary statement: If someone is consistently playing for a team that’s performing at a higher level than your team, then there’s a good chance that he/she would raise the level of your team. For someone like Bayern Munich or Manchester City, this rule is pretty much useless since no one is ever going to be better by a significant-enough margin for it to direct their recruitment strategy. But for the Premier League clubs outside the Top Six, it theoretically should be pretty easy to employ this approach because of one simple asymmetry: Most Premier League teams have a ton of money, and most Premier League teams are bad.
The latest example: Felipe Anderson! The Brazilian/winger/midfielder/ball-carrier/literally-do-everything-and-we’ll-get-to-that-in-a-second-er scored 20 goals and notched 20 assists in his first three seasons with Lazio, in addition to doing sizable amounts of dribbling, tackling, and intercepting. He struggled with injuries last year, but was as good if not better at everything when he did play. In his 24-year-old season (read: the age he was when the season began), Anderson only started nine Serie A matches. Had he put up another season of consistent production in starter’s minutes, I can’t imagine he wouldn’t be playing for a Champions League team right now. Instead, he was an off-the-bench dynamo (he averaged six completed dribbles per 90 minutes last season, which is better than pretty much everyone in the world other than Adama Traore, who answers the age-old question “what if a Roomba were a tank and what if that vaccuum-cum-armored-vehicle played professional soccer?”) for a team that would’ve finished in fourth place in Italy if … a guy they’d already pre-sold to Inter Milan didn’t have a final-15-minute meltdown in the last game of the season … against Inter Milan, who, by beating Lazio, swiped the fourth and final Champions League spot.
Instead, Anderson moved for €38 million last summer to West Ham, who finished last season in 13th place. Now, with Anderson and manager Manuel Pellegrini — another simple way to improve a bad and rich Premier League team: hire a coach who recently won the Premier League and has a long history of high-level success before that! — leading the way, West Ham are comfortably in 10th. (However, they might soon lose starting striker Marko Arnautovic, whose agent has come up with an interesting new way to spell “cash the hell out.”) But forget whatever James Harden is doing with the Houston Rockets right now; Felipe Anderson is the only one-man team that matters.
These are all of the stats Anderson leads the Hammers in: passes completed, passes attempted, goals, tackles, open-play key passes, through balls completed, backward passes, successful dribbles, big chances created, goals+assists, and expected assists. Oh yeah, and he’s second in assists, shots, set-play key passes, forward passes, touches in the opposition box, and xG+xA.
There’s a succinct economy of movement in the way Anderson plays — how else could you get through all that work without getting the most out of every step? Just look how quickly he settles this ball and then detonates Southampton:
Everyone can use someone who’s capable of everything. At 25, Anderson is young enough that he’ll still probably attract interest from some of the best teams in the world if he keeps this up. He’s certainly good enough to contribute for a team with European aspirations. Then again, we already knew that before he got to London.
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