Tuesday, 12 April 2016

Spieth follows in Rory's footsteps as Augusta bites

At the end of the second round at Augusta, Rory Mcilroy had clung onto the coat tails of Jordan Spieth, with just one shot separating the two most exciting prospects in golf. Spieth, who had looked as comfortable on the Georgia course as one would look in an armchair at home, was suddenly under pressure having dropped three shots on the 17th and 18th holes.

Mcilroy fell to +2 when paired with Spieth on day three

This was the moment many had anticipated – could Rory get close enough to exert some pressure and really see what the 22-year-old Spieth was made of? Could his Dennis Bergkamp-like cool be unsettled?

The answer was yes, but not by Rory.

Danny Willett’s victory came as a result of patience and mastery of timing. From rounds one to three the Yorkshire man was -2, even and even again. Spieth had led him by four, four and three across those rounds, but Willett had kept himself well positioned.

Despite his collapse on the 12th hole, golf looks to be Spieth's
to dominate for years to come

Meanwhile Rory missed his chance to assert his authority. Having been paired together ‘mano a mano’ as Hazel Irvine superbly put it, the more experienced Mcilroy's challenge was to wrest the narrative from Spieth's nerve-less hands. The opposite transpired, as Rory fell to +2.

Willett was one of a small group whose patience and incremental pressure on Spieth eventually told. When Spieth teed off on the fateful 12th, he led on -5 with Willett -4 and Johnson -2. The small chasing pack had made sure there was at least a question or two to be asked of Jordan going into the back nine, and eventually Spieth ran out of answers.

Spieth v Mcilroy however looks to have plenty of legs in it, and the narrative potentially is richer for Sunday’s events. Rory himself knows all too well the emotional scars Augusta’s manicured menace can leave; having thrown away a four shot lead going into the final round in 2011, the lasting image of Rory's ball striking a building and the cameras kindly leaving him to it will be something he now has in common with Spieth.

The difference remains that Jordan already has A) a Masters title and B) multiple majors, but he might do well to seek Rory out for a few tips on recovering. We got a glimpse of Spieth v Mcilroy this weekend– here’s hoping it was merely a footnote in a rich sporting rivalry.

Wednesday, 24 February 2016

League Cup winners... Premier League Champions?

I love a stat, so I had a look at who had completed the Premier League/League Cup double and got to thinking about the effect of the League Cup.

Points per game
Chelsea 2015
1st to 1st
Man City 2014
4th to 1st
Man United 2010
2nd to 2nd
Man United 2009
1st to 1st
Chelsea 2007
2nd to 2nd
Man United 2006
2nd to 2nd

There’s been a lot of talk about the League Cup’s place in the calendar. As one of the only leagues with two domestic cup competitions, it seems practical to scrap it. It would enhance the prestige of the FA Cup, reduce the ire-inducing fixture congestion, and perhaps offer England’s players a bit of respite in a tournament year.

Someone made the excellent point however that the League Cup final marks the beginning of the business end of the season, and as such, the crucial third or so of the season where the cream rises to the top. Manchester City take on Liverpool this Sunday, with one eye on an achievable Premier League title.

With this in mind I have taken a look at the form of sides who have won the League Cup while also in a title race. Over the last ten years, six occasions have produced a winner with an eye on the title, and their form is excellent.

Manchester United’s win in 2010 preceded the finest form, with the Red Devils yielding an average of 2.5 points per game, conceding just four goals in ten games. However, they failed to overhaul Chelsea, who matched their form over the final 10 games to pip United to the title by a point.

Sir Alex was no stranger to a League Cup

The Chelsea of 2014/15 followed their League Cup victory with 2.25 points per game, also yielding the lowest average goals scored of any of the six examples, achieving just 1.42 goals per game in the final fixtures. They were however already five points clear with a game in hand, and managed to lose only one game in the process.

The Manchester City 2013/14 example is an interesting one. Having beaten Sunderland in the League Cup final, the Citizens managed an impressive 2.42 points per game over their final 12 league fixtures, but rather more impressively scored 33 goals at 2.75 per game. It’s worth noting they had to keep up with the free-scoring Liverpool in one of the most goal-laden Premier League title chases in history.

So like I said, a bit of fun. But, if you want to take anything from this in terms of 2015/16, there is a little more. The average points per game from all six examples is 2.3 – this translates to 27.6 points, which if we round up to 28 would give Manchester City 75 points. Enough? It would leave Leicester needing 23 points from 12 (1.92 points per game) and Tottenham and Arsenal needing 25 points at 2.083 points per game.

Does it mean anything? We’ll see.

Monday, 4 January 2016

Fantasy Football and Unsustainable Form.

It’s been a largely enjoyable fantasy football season so far, but then that’s probably because you have had to be incredibly cavalier not to go along with what has been a frighteningly reliable formbook.

Here are some stats for the top 5 players to date:

%selected by
Points (goals/assists)
Points Per Gameweek
Consistency stat
Riyad Mahrez
153 (13/7)
Before last 3 games, his longest run without a goal/assist was one game
Romelu Lukaku
135 (15/5)
Scored in 7 games in a row
Mesut Ozil
131 (3/16)
In last 16 games, has only failed to score/assist in 3 games
Odion Ighalo
129 (14/5)
In last 16 games, has only failed to score/assist in 4 games
Jamie Vardy
128 (15/4)
Scored in 11 consecutive games, and scores or assisted in 15 consecutive games

I’ve played fantasy football for long enough to know that those ‘%selected by’ stats are unbelievable. To have four players selected by over 50% of managers is in my experience unheard of, and largely down to one thing: the rise of the middle-tier club.

West Ham, Leicester, Crystal Palace and Watford have all been performing incredibly this season, with the likes of Payet, Mahrez, Scott Dann, Ighalo and Deeney all arguably exceeding expectations.

Odion Ighalo mixing it with the big boys.

Combine this with the poor form of Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester United, three of the Premier League’s traditional top 4, and it’s easy to see why rival FPL teams are so indistinguishable from one another. If the expensive players are the form guys, then you have to make some difficult choices. 

This looked set to be the case when Aguero scored 5 and it seemed as if those who could afford him would be the only ones who could compete. If the cheap players are the ones in form, it’s fairly easy to acquire them. Ighalo, Mahrez, Vardy etc represent crazy value, explaining their popularity.

This would explain my result this week. Although I scored poorly, I lost few places as it was likely that those at the top end with me had a similar looking team.

Despite a poor week I only dropped from 27,094th to 29,121st

The question on many managers’ minds then will have been this: how long can the formbook last? Well the Christmas period looks to be hinting that it may be coming to a close.

A glance at some of the over-performing middle-tier clubs suggests as much. Leicester have failed to score in their last 3 games, picking up two draws and a loss in the process. Likewise, Palace have accrued two draws and a loss with no goals, and Watford succumbed to Chelsea, Tottenham and Manchester City, picking up just one point.

Meanwhile there are rumblings from the sleeping giants. Manchester City earned a foreboding 1-2 win at Vicarage Road, ending their dreadful run of away games without a win since September, with goals from Yaya Toure and Sergio Aguero.

Please don't hit form Sergio, I can't afford you.

Chelsea are now undefeated in four (WDDW) after four losses in their previous six league games, and ended an even worse away run with their first win on the road since August.

And Manchester United, after their encouraging 0-0 draw against Chelsea, won their first league game since November with Rooney and Martial netting against Swansea.

If the formbook falls apart it could make for an interesting second half of the fantasy football season. It’s all about picking the next in-form player before anybody else, and they might come at a bit more of a premium in 2016. 

Saturday, 26 December 2015

Europe: An Unexpected Journey

Modern football has many ills, none more so than the battle between development, financial power and the prioritisation of winning.

Wenger’s comment on the priority of fourth place in the Premier League has been carved into something of an in joke, but really it’s a fine commentary on the way football has gone since Sky got ‘in and around’ the beautiful game.

The money increased, and as such priorities changed. How many times have you seen a bottom-half side send out the reserves in a cup game? You can hardly blame them.

And so to Europe. The continent’s most prestigious competitions offer good money and prestigious prizes, so have naturally been able to spurn the threat of the Premier League’s cash trough. But between the Champions League and the Europa League, the importance of ‘winning’ has come into question.

This was perfectly illustrated through Arsenal fans’ relief at avoiding the Europa League – European football’s answer to a question nobody asked. The overall feeling was that fans would rather finish fourth (and miss out on European football altogether) than third, where a trophy beckons.

Obviously Arsenal have a Premier League crown to chase this season, but if anything this attitude simply reinforces the idea that no English club will ever complete a treble like Manchester United’s of 1999 ever again. With the winter schedule and the increasing prioritisation of competitions, it looks agonisingly unlikely.

‘Which tournament will Manchester City decide they want to win least?’ is a slogan that never sold any Sky Sports subscriptions, and never will.

Three of England’s finest teams currently find themselves in the Europa League however, and it might just turn out to be the most important competition for them in their recent histories.

Manchester United, Liverpool and Tottenham all find themselves in amongst the hustle and bustle of the last 32, and all three are also in what you might call a ‘transitional stage’, or ‘not in the title race’ to you and me. To them, the Europa League must not be 

First off, there’s your friend and mine the coefficient, which is looking miraculously healthy. With three English clubs in the last 16 of the Champions League, and three also in the last 32 of the Europa League, there’s colour in the cheeks of Colin Coefficient at present, and now is not an opportunity to be wasted.

England (UEFA club ranking)
Italy (UEFA club ranking)
Manchester City (14) v Dinamo Kiev (26)
Juventus (8) v Bayern Munich (2)
Chelsea (4) v PSG (7)
Roma (47) v Real Madrid (1)
Arsenal (9) v Barcelona (3)
Fiorentina (32)  v Tottenham (22)
Manchester United (20) v FC Midtjylland (136)
Lazio (28) v Galatasaray (31)
Liverpool (46) v FC Augsberg (94)
Napoli (16) v Villarreal (42)
Tottenham (22) v Fiorentina (32)

Italy probably couldn’t have hoped for a worse draw, while England’s is average. Manchester City, Liverpool and Manchester United should definitely go through, while Chelsea and Tottenham both have a good chance. Our Europa League trio currently all covet fourth place, so a good run of ‘winning’ would enhance their chances of Champions League football.

If you thought the battle for fourth place was contradictory to the idea of winning, then you’ll love the battle for the coefficient to actually retain the fourth Champions League spot; scintillating stuff.

But here is a chance to develop as well. All joking aside, these three sides are in a development stage. Tottenham’s young side navigated by the very able Mauricio Pochettino are something to be excited by for example. Here is a team that has plenty of experience in the competition, as well as the quality. They are cutting their teeth here, not only learning how to play against foreign opposition who will use different tactics, but also learning how to travel.

Manchester United and Liverpool would do well to respect the competition similarly. The best example: Atletico Madrid. Twice winners, in 2010 and 2012, went on to finish as runners-up in the Champions League in 2014 and won arguably the hardest league in the world in the same year.

Chelsea, Europa League winners in 2013, went on to win their first league title for 5 years in 2015 and reached the Champions League semi finals in 2014. Arsenal finished as UEFA Cup runners-up in 2000 in a precursor to one of the most successful 5-year spells in the club’s history.

Here is a proving ground then for three teams who are desperately trying to basically get better. But above all else, here is a chance to ‘win’. Remember that feeling? The respective trophy droughts of Manchester United, Liverpool and Tottenham will be three years, four years and eight years by the end of the current season, and if we really must rank the trophies available, surely the Europa League ranks higher than the FA Cup and League Cup?

Ultimately, the Europa League can be a drain on emotion and energy, but for Liverpool, Tottenham and Manchester United it represents significantly more than that this season.

Friday, 20 November 2015

Roll Up! For the Managerial Mystery Tour

For a while now, the Premier League’s pantomime status has been secured not only by players, but by managers as well. TV coverage increased and post-match interviews gave rise to the manager’s media voice, and what we were left with was another dimension of football celebrity.

And by such measures the Premier League is in rude health, with premium managers occupying various car-sponsored leather seats in dugouts across the country. Arsene Wenger has his ‘Invincibles’, Jose Mourinho has tasted success everywhere he’s been, Manuel Pellegrini showed his credentials with an immediate league title, and Louis van Gaal went unbeaten with Ajax in both the Eredivisie and the Champions League in a remarkable 1994/95 season.

Van Gaal, of Ajax fame.

The addition of Jurgen Klopp, one of the most sought after young innovators in football management, has only gone further to suggest that the Premier League is moving into a dominant position in the managerial transfer market. Moreover, two of the biggest and best are rumoured to be considering moves to the self-proclaimed ‘Best League In The World.’

Pep Guardiola is one. The highly intelligent former Barca no.4 is coming to the end of his contract with Bayern, and with a penchant for restlessness and a desire to learn about the various cultures of the world, Pep is closer than ever to moving to England. If he were to take a year out, as he did after quitting Catalonia, his return would synchronise with Wenger’s current contract expiring. Equally however, Manchester City are strongly linked.

Carlo Ancelotti is the other. The Italian, who is one of only two managers to have won the European Cup on three separate occasions (Bob Paisley for those wondering) has indicated a preference for the PL upon his next managerial adventure. Carlo is unlikely to arrive just yet, but would represent a prime opportunity for any top club.

So why is the Premier League such hot property?

Obviously there’s the money. Did you know that in 2013/14, relegated Cardiff of the Premier League earned more in TV money than Bundesliga champions Bayern Munich? And I’m talking SIGNIFICANTLY more; many millions.

Equally La Liga has its own problems where TV money is concerned. Until very recently it was left to individual teams to sort their own TV deals out, and unsurprisingly Barcelona and Real Madrid took a vast chunk of it. Reports suggest that while these two earned over £100m from such deals in 2013/14, the next best paid were Valencia (around £35 million) Atletico Madrid (closer to £30 million) and Sevilla (around £23 million).

You know the league's rich when the golden lions wear crowns

These figures make it easy to see why managerial attraction to the Premier League is strong, but the money serves to make the Premier League more than just a bank. Despite seeming almost clich├ęd, the Premier League is an upwardly mobile place to be with the TV money gap relatively small between the top and bottom clubs, which in turn leads to greater competition.

While Spain and Germany are famed for relatively dull league narratives, the Premier League is heavily laden with spectacle, with the current league table a perfect example: Leicester, 11 games in, occupy third place while Liverpool sit in tenth and Chelsea sixteenth. West Ham, under the watchful eye of Slaven Bilic, sit in sixth place and look well at home.

And perhaps above all else, the pantomime of the Premier League is enticing. You can think of Scudamore’s empire as a Hollywood film; it is fast, action packed, and with not a little controversy and conflict. The tactical innovation and talent might be greater in Germany or Spain, but if it’s worthy cinema you want you can jog on to Cannes.

So what does this mean for English football?

First and foremost, high profile management attracts high profile players, something that is no doubt exciting Liverpool’s following with Klopp’s Dortmund links. Pep immediately took Thiago Alcantara with him to Bayern for example, and van Gaal delighted Manchester United fans with the transfer of Memphis Depay. Wenger has long used his status to attract talents such as Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil, and there is no doubt that the established figures of Ancelotti and Guardiola have pull in the market.

There would also be hope that these two could bring some tactical innovation to the party. While it is all we can do to revel in the chaos of the Premier League, the country’s best clubs are shadows of their former European selves. Pep and Carlo are two of Europe’s most successful tinkerers, and could represent a renaissance of tactical thought in England. Furthermore, with a gaggle of impressionable young up-and-comers such as Ronald Koeman, Roberto Martinez and Garry Monk, such presence could have a great impact on other managers in the league.

What once seemed like a household item in Premier League trophy
cabinets now seems out of reach for PL clubs.

Further to this, the FA would do well to learn from these two should they hop aboard the ferry to Dover. With the combined knowledge of a great pool of managers they might actually be able to enhance England’s prospects in future tournaments, and if the FA played their cards right, even attract someone like Pep or Carlo to the national team job one day.

So is it all sweetness and roses? Not quite. Clubs looking further afield for high-profile managers are destroying the chances of those plying their trade lower in the league or even further down the divisions. It is, for example, very difficult to imagine that despite his success at Swansea, a club like Manchester City would ever offer Garry Monk a chance. That’s just the way football has gone though, with the same argument having long been made in defence of the lower-league player.

This league is a product, and there’s no point in kidding ourselves otherwise. Amidst the fun of the Premier League fair, the managerial carousel goes round, and it’s as much as we can do to buy some candy floss and enjoy the bright lights.

Tuesday, 10 November 2015

Eat my goal: The 'good' striker

A striker’s worth is apparently obvious to all. Their currency is goals, and unfortunately/fortunately for him or her, this is almost without rebuttal.

Consider Mesut Ozil. His season has by anyone’s measure been a success, in large part due to our penchant for consulting the hard numbers. Mesut has clocked up 10 assists – as well as a goal, the striker’s meat and drink – and as such has earned the country’s blessing as a top midfielder. However, somewhat more transiently he also boasts a phenomenal stat: Squawka say Ozil has created 54 chances for teammates, a stunning average of just under 5 chances a game.

Further to this, when Ozil isn’t creating hard data he is recognised as the oil of Arsenal’s machine, and in the opinion of his fans he has transcended the rudimentary nature of numbers. His is almost becoming a philosophical position. ‘If you love football, you love Ozil’ said Wenger. You are dared to judge Ozil by mortal reasoning.

No such luck for the striker.

Their fortunes are judged only in the cruel light of day, with both fine goal and cruel miss experienced just yards from the reaction of the fan. Isn’t that unfair, that a midfielder can hide between the lines, where the striker’s business is concluded in front of thousands of people every time? That’s the price of glory, a binary position, their experience on the pitch one of huge extremes; 89 minutes of chance after chance are irrelevant if you eventually persuade the ball over the line.

So let’s consider the finest of the 'modern' era.

Thierry Henry supplied them. His league career at Arsenal yielded well above the accepted average of one in two, scoring 174 goals in 254 games and although he was celebrated for the style of his goals, beauty had no influence on value. Ruud van Nistelrooy – Thierry’s Dutch contemporary - equally hit his targets, with 95 league goals in 150 games, and startlingly, 38 European goals in 47 games.

In modern times, Sergio Aguero is the most consistently excellent at providing goals, gols or GOLASSOs, with 84 in 128 league games. But there is a sub-group.

In MATCH ‘s 2005 annual, there is a feature on Luis Figo. In it, Real Madrid’s sporting director of the time Jorge Valdano, said ‘We are so used to Figo playing brilliantly that we think he is playing badly when he is just playing normally’.

It’s an important quote to consider when you look at what you might refer to as the ‘second tier’ of strikers. Not being Sergio Aguero cannot mean you are a bad striker, and there is a growing group of ‘good’ strikers in the current Premier League who basically are doing what they are being paid for.

Olivier Giroud
Romelu Lukaku
Graziano Pelle
15/16 league goals
Goals per game (PL)
0.43 (WBA & Everton)
6ft 4
6ft 3
6ft 4
Transfer fee (latest)
International record
40 apps 12 goals
40 apps 11 goals
8 apps 4 goals

A study of this sub-group reveals remarkable results. Olivier Giroud and Romelu Lukaku (considering only his time at West Brom and Everton) both have a goals-per-game record of 0.43 in the Premier League, while Graziano Pelle comes in only slightly lower at 0.36. Michael Owen scored at 0.46, Wayne Rooney 0.45, Ronaldo at 0.43 and Robbie Fowler at 0.43 also. Giroud and Pelle have six league goals this season, while Lukaku has seven.

Additionally, Giroud and Pelle both stand at 6 foot 4 inches, while Lukaku is 6 ft 3. They are all strong in the air, but eternally cursed also with phrases such as ‘not a bad touch for a big man!’ They boast power, and have all demonstrated skill, from aerial acrobatics to groundwork.

Their international records make for interesting reading also. Giroud has 40 apps and 12 goals, Lukaku 40 apps to 11 goals, and Pelle eight apps to four goals (a decent if slightly unproven record which sort of makes up for his slightly lower PL goals per game average). None have scored heavily. Respectable, but consider Neymar’s Brazil scrapbook: 67 apps, 46 goals. He is 23.

Their circumstances, and expectations, are somewhat different. Arsenal’s Olivier Giroud has long plied his trade in the shadow of Ian Wright, Thierry Henry and Robin van Persie, three of the greatest strikers the league has seen. Pelle at Southampton is in a somewhat comfier position, challenging for European football, but under no great pressure otherwise. Lukaku’s hefty price tag and youth mean he is in the greatest position of the three to break into the top tier of goalscorer, but at Everton he is under no pressure to win the league.

Ambitions may change around them, and when those questions are asked they will have to consider their positions, but in their glorious trade of supply and demand they are rarely out of stock. In a soap-opera league these men do their jobs and do them well, and that's why the 'good' striker is OK by me.