Afcon in winter

As well as Liverpool is doing this season, there are already clouds on how good next season could be. The reason is the moving of the African Cup of Nations (AFCON) to January-February, which means Liverpool will be without three key players (Mo Salah, Sadio Mane and Naby Keita) for over six weeks of the season.

When asked about it at a press conference last week, manager Jurgen Klopp went off on a massive rant (paywalled) about scheduling, and FIFA and UEFA and everything.

The other thing is it doesn’t help African players. We will not sell Sadio, Mo or Naby now because they have a tournament in January and February — of course not — but if you have to make a decision about bringing in a player it is a massive one because before the season you know for four weeks you don’t have them. That’s a normal process and as a club you have to think about these things. It doesn’t help the players, for sure.

This is a very valid second-order impact of having the African Cup of Nations in the middle of the European season. As the timing of the AFCON gets regularised in winter, European clubs will be loathe to hire Africans into their leagues. And that is bad news for African footballers.

While elite players such as Salah or Mane might never be in the need for a job, the problem with the unavailability mid-season is that clubs will start accounting for that while making decisions on recruitment.

The marginal African player playing in the second or third division in a major European footballing country will find it marginally more difficult to get a next good contract. The marginal African player at the top of his country’s league will find it marginally more difficult to get recruited to a (nowadays coveted) European club.

And as African players play less for European clubs (this will happen in due course), there will be fewer African role models. Because of which fewer African kids will want to take up football. Because of which the overall level of football in African countries will go down.

This is the problem with dependence on external factors, like African football does with European football. That the best African footballers want to play in Europe means that the wishes of Europe will automatically have an impact on football in Africa. This means that Africa cannot schedule its continental tournament at the time of the year that is most convenient to it without impacting its own players.

This is a rather common problem. A quick analogy I can think of is the impossible trinity of macroeconomics – an independent monetary policy, free capital flows and a fixed exchange rate. The moment you peg your currency to another, what happens in the other currency automatically starts affecting you.

So what should African Football do? Clearly, climatic conditions mean that for most of Africa it’s optimal to host the tournament in (the northern hemisphere) winter. Clearly, there is no point of hosting such a tournament if the best African footballers don’t take part. But doing so will marginally jeopardise the marginal African footballer. And that is not good for African football.

There are no easy answers to this puzzle.

Studs and Fighters and Attack and Defence

The general impression in sport is that attack is “stud” and defence is “Fighter“. This is mainly because defence (in any game, pretty much) is primarily about not making errors, and being disciplined. Flamboyance can pay off in attack, when you only need to strike occasionally, but not in defence, where the real payoff comes from being consistent and excellent.

However, attack need not always be stud, and defence need not always be fighter. This is especially true in team sports such as football, where there can be a fair degree of organisation and coaching to get players to coordinate.

This piece in The Athletic (paywalled) gives an interesting instance of how attacking can be fighter, and how modern football is all about fighter attacking. It takes the instance of this weekend’s game between Tottenham Hotspur and Liverpool F.C., which the latter won.

Jack Pitt-Brooke, the author, talks about how Liverpool is fighter in attack because the players are well-drilled in attacking, and practice combination play, or what are known in football as “automisations”.

But in modern football, the opposite is true. The best football, the type played by Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City or Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool, is the most rigorously planned, drilled and co-ordinated. Those two managers have spent years teaching their players the complex attacking patterns and synchronised movements that allow them to cut through every team in the country. That is why they can never be frustrated by opponents who just sit in and defend, why they are racking up points totals beyond the reach of anyone else.

Jose Mourinho, on the other hand, might be fighter in the way he sets up his defence, but not so when it comes to attacking. He steadfastly refuses to have his teams train attacking automisations. While defences are extremely well drilled, and know exactly how to coordinate, attackers are left to their own forces and creativity. What Mourinho does is to identify a handful of attackers (usually the centre forward and the guy just behind him) who are given “free roles” and are expected to use their own creativity in leading their team’s attacks.

As Pitt-Brooke went on to write in his article,

That, more than anything else, explains the difference between Klopp and Mourinho. Klopp wants to plan his way out of the randomness of football. Mourinho is more willing to accept it as a fact and work around it. So while the modern manager — Klopp, Guardiola, Antonio Conte — coaches players in ‘automisations’, pre-planned moves and patterns, Mourinho does not.

Jurgen Klopp the fighter, and Jose Mourinho the stud. That actually makes sense when you think of how their teams attack. It may not be intuitive, but upon some thought it makes sense.

Yes, attack is also being fighterised in modern sport.

Two steps back, one step forward

In his excellent piece on Everton’s failed recruitment strategy (paywalled), Oliver Kay of the Athletic makes an interesting point – that players seldom do well when they move from a bigger club to a smaller club.

During his time in charge at Arsenal, George Graham used to say that the key to building a team was to buy players who were on the way up — or, alternatively, players who were desperate to prove a point — but to avoid those who might see your club as a soft landing, a comfort zone. “Never buy a player who’s taking a step down to join you,” Graham said. “He will act as if he’s doing you a favour.”

This, I guess, is not unique to football alone – it applies to other jobs as well. When someone joins a company that they think they are “too cool for”, they  look at it as a step down, and occasionally behave as if they’re doing the new employer a favour.

One corollary is that working for “the best” can be a sort of lock in for an employee, since wherever he will move from there will be a sort of step down in some way or the other, and that will mean compromises on the part of all parties involved.

Thinking about footballers who have moved from big clubs and still not done badly, I notice one sort of pattern that I call “two steps back and one step forward”. Evidently, I’m basing this analysis on a small number of data points, which might be biased, but let me play management guru and go ahead with my theory.

Basically, if you want to take a “step down” from the best, one way of doing well in the longer term is to take “two steps down” and then later take a step up. The advantage with this approach is that when you take two steps down, you get to operate in an environment far easier than the one you left, and even if you act entitled and take time to adjust you will be able to prove yourself and make an impact in due course.

And at that point in time, when you’ve started making an impact, you are “on the way up”, and can then step up to a club at the next level where you can make an impact.

Players that come to mind that have taken this approach include Jonny Evans, who moved from Ferguson-era Manchester United to West Brom, and then when West Brom got relegated, moved “up” to Leicester. And he’s doing a pretty good job there.

And then there is Xherdan Shaqiri. He made his name as a player at Bayern Munich, and then moved to Inter where he struggled. And then he made what seemed like a shocking move for the time – to Stoke City (of the “cold Thursday night at Stoke” fame) in the Premier League. Finally, last year, after Stoke got relegated from the Premier League, he “stepped up” to Liverpool, where, injuries aside, he’s been doing rather well.

The risk with this two steps down approach, of course, is that sometimes it can fail to come off, and if you don’t make an impact soon enough, you start getting seen as a “two steps down guy”, and even “one step down” can seem well beyond you.

Experience and Cows

A lot of people make a big deal about experience. If some people (and some companies) are to be believed, the number of years in a job should be the only criterion of what someone needs to be paid and whether they deserve to be promoted.

However, not all experience is created equal. Experience matters when you are learning on the job, and where you learn the patterns that are inherent in your job, and you can over time replace your “slow thinking” about the job with more “fast thinking”.

If you continue to do the same thing in the same way throughout the years of experience, not bothering to figure out why things are done certain ways, and how things can be done better, the experience isn’t of that much use.

I leave it to former Tottenham Hotspur manager Mauricio Pochettino to explain this concept with a beautiful and profound analogy (there’s a video in this link which I’m somehow unable to embed here).

It is like a cow that, every day in 10 years, sees the train cross in front at the same time.

If you ask the cow, ‘what time is the train going to come’, it is not going to know the right answer.

In football, it is the same. Experience, yes, but hunger, motivation, circumstance, everything is so important.

It is unfortunate that the journalist who covered this story for Sky Sports thought this analogy was bizarre. Maybe he has been doing his job reporting on press conferences in the same way a cow sees a train passing by at a particular time every day?

Liverpool FC: Mid Season Review

After 20 games played, Liverpool are sitting pretty on top of the Premier League with 58 points (out of a possible 60). The only jitter in the campaign so far came in a draw away at Manchester United.

I made what I think is a cool graph to put this performance in perspective. I looked at Liverpool’s points tally at the end of the first 19 match days through the length of the Premier League, and looked at “progress” (the data for last night’s win against Sheffield isn’t yet up on my dataset, which also doesn’t include data for the 1992-93 season, so those are left out).

Given the strength of this season’s performance, I don’t think there’s that much information in the graph, but here it goes in any case:

I’ve coloured all the seasons where Liverpool were the title contenders. A few things stand out:

  1. This season, while great, isn’t that much better than the last one. Last season, Liverpool had three draws in the first half of the league (Man City at home, Chelsea away and Arsenal away). It was the first month of the second half where the campaign faltered (starting with the loss to Man City).
  2. This possibly went under the radar, but Liverpool had a fantastic start to the 2016-17 season as well, with 43 points at the halfway stage. To put that in perspective, this was one more than the points total at that stage in the title-chasing 2008-9 season.
  3. Liverpool went close in 2013-14, but in terms of points, the halfway performance wasn’t anything to write home about. That was also back in the time when teams didn’t dominate like nowadays, and eighty odd points was enough to win the league.

This is what Liverpool’s full season looked like (note that I’ve used a different kind of graph here. Not sure which one is better).

 

Finally, what’s the relationship between points at the end of the first half of the season (19 games) and the full season? Let’s run a regression across all teams, across all 38 game EPL seasons.

The regression doesn’t turn out to be THAT significant, with an R Squared of 41%. In other words, a team’s points tally at the halfway point in the season explains less than 50% of the variation in the points tally that the team will get in the second half of the season.

Coefficients:
            Estimate Std. Error t value Pr(>|t|)    
(Intercept)  9.42967    0.97671   9.655   <2e-16 ***
Midway       0.64126    0.03549  18.070   <2e-16 ***
---
Signif. codes:  0 ‘***’ 0.001 ‘**’ 0.01 ‘*’ 0.05 ‘.’ 0.1 ‘ ’ 1

Residual standard error: 6.992 on 478 degrees of freedom
  (20 observations deleted due to missingness)
Multiple R-squared:  0.4059,    Adjusted R-squared:  0.4046 
F-statistic: 326.5 on 1 and 478 DF,  p-value: < 2.2e-16

The interesting thing is that the coefficient of the midway score is less than 1, which implies that teams’ performances at the end of the season (literally) regress to the mean.

55 points at the end of the first 19 games is projected to translate to 100 at the end of the season. In fact, based on this regression model run on the first 19 games of the season, Liverpool should win the title by a canter.

PS: Look at the bottom of this projections table. It seems like for the first time in a very long time, the “magical” 40 points might be necessary to stave off relegation. Then again, it’s regression (pun intended).

Why Mourinho failed at ManYoo

Yesterday, Baada and I decided to try and record one of our recent WhatsApp conversations and release it as a podcast. I was in charge of tech, and I messed up massively. I was using Skype, and for whatever reason, it appears that my phone picked the microphone input from the phone itself and not from the AirPods I was using, so my voice came very faintly. Baada’s voice came well, though.

Leading up to the podcast, both of us had done our homework, so it’s a pity that it didn’t come out well and we can’t release it. The topic of the podcast was what kind of strategy, tactics and formations Jose Mourinho will use at Spurs. As part of our preparation, we had looked at the formations that he had used in each of his previous six clubs (Porto, Chelsea (1), Inter, Real Madrid, Chelsea (2) and Manchester United). There was one clear trend.

There are a number of positions that Mourinho prefers, and we were able to identify players in his first five clubs who occupied that position. And when it came to ManYoo, we drew a blank. This happened repeatedly as we talked through his possible formations and possible personnel to use at Spurs.

For example, Mourinho has a history of playing a Number Ten, and giving him a largely free role, encouraging him to get forward and score. Deco at Porto, Lampard at Chelsea 1, Sneijder at Inter, Ozil at Madrid, Hazard at Chelsea 2. And nobody at ManYoo! Through the Mourinho years, ManYoo didn’t have a proper Number Ten (and they don’t have one now) – it’s almost like a Number Ten wasn’t part of the ManYoo school of playing.

Then, people like to talk about Mourinho parking the bus, but an interesting feature of his game is that he uses a defensive midfielder who is good on the ball. Costinha at Porto. Makelele at Chelsea (he’s not that ultra-defensive midfielder commentators make him out to be – read Michael Cox’s Mixer to know more about him). Motta, Cambiasso and Zanetti at Inter. Xabi Alonso at Madrid. Nemanja Matic at Chelsea the second time round.

And again ManYoo didn’t have a comparable player. Mourinho took Matic along, but he didn’t do particularly well there (maybe he was past his prime?).

Then Mourinho likes a box-to-box midfielder who doesn’t mind doing dirty work. Essien in Chelsea 1, Khedira at Real. Ramires in Chelsea 2. Again ManYoo lacked such a player by the time Mourinho arrived (had he taken over earlier, maybe he might have used Paul Scholes in the role).

You can go on.

The remarkable thing is that Spurs actually have good personnel for most of the roles that Mourinho likes. They have an excellent Number Nine in Harry Kane. Dele Alli, Christian Eriksen and Hyong-Min Son are all capable of being the Number Ten (Alli is most likely to play there). Moussa Sissoko will be the box-to-box hardworking midfielder. Harry Winks can actually play the ball from central midfield. And so on.

So I expect Mourinho to do better with Spurs than he did with Manyoo. Even if he doesn’t have the budget to buy players of his choice in the next window.

Spurs right to sack Pochettino?

A few months back, I built my “football club elo by manager” visualisation. Essentially, we take the week-by-week Premier League Elo ratings from ClubElo and overlay it with managerial tenures.

A clear pattern emerges – a lot of Premier League sackings have been consistent with clubs going down significantly in terms of Elo Ratings. For example, we have seen that Liverpool sacked Rafa Benitez, Kenny Dalglish (in 2012) and Brendan Rodgers all at the right time, and that similarly Manchester United sacked Jose Mourinho when he brought them back to below where he started.

And now the news comes in that Spurs have joined the party, sacking long-time coach Mauricio Pochettino. What I find interesting is the timing of the sacking – while international breaks are usually a popular time to change managers (the two week gap in fixtures gives a club some time to adjust), most sackings happen in the first week of the international break.

The Pochettino sacking is surprising in that it has come towards the end of the international break, giving the club four days before their next fixture (a derby at the struggling West Ham). However, the Guardian reports that Spurs are close to hiring Jose Mourinho, and that might explain the timing of the sacking.

So were Spurs right in sacking Pochettino, barely six months after he took them to a Champions League final? Let’s look at the Spurs story under Pochettino using Elo ratings. 

 

 

 

 

Pochettino took over in 2014 after an underwhelming 2013-14 when the club struggled under Andre Villas Boas and then Tim Sherwood. Initially, results weren’t too promising, as he took them from a 1800 rating down to 1700.

However, chairman Daniel Levy’s patience paid off, and the club mounted a serious challenge to Leicester in the 2015-16 season before falling away towards the end of the season, finishing third behind Arsenal. As the Elo shows, the improvement continued, as the club remained in Champions League places through the course of Pochettino’s reign.

Personally, the “highlight” of Pochettino’s reign was Spurs’ 4-1 demolition of Liverpool at Wembley in October 2017, a game I happened to watch at the stadium. And as per the Elo ratings the club plateaued shortly after that.

If that plateau had continued,  I suppose Pochettino would have remained in his job, giving the team regular Champions League football. This season, however, has been a disaster.

Spurs are 13 points below what they had scored in comparable fixtures last season, and unlikely to finish in the top six even. Their Elo has also dropped below 1850 for the first time since 2016-17. While that is still higher than where Pochettino started off at, the precipitous drop in recent times has meant that the club has possibly taken the right call in sacking Pochettino.

If Mourinho does replace him (it looks likely, as per the Guardian), it will present a personal problem for me – for over a decade now, Tottenham have been my “second team” in the top half of the Premier League, behind Liverpool. That cannot continue if Mourinho takes over. I’m wondering who to shift my allegiance to – it will have to be either Leicester or (horror of horrors) Chelsea!

EPL: Mid-Season Review

Going into the November international break, Liverpool are eight points ahead at the top of the Premier League. Defending champions Manchester City have slipped to fourth place following their loss to Liverpool. The question most commentators are asking is if Liverpool can hold on to this lead.

We are two-thirds of the way through the first round robin of the premier league. The thing with evaluating league standings midway through the round robin is that it doesn’t account for the fixture list. For example, Liverpool have finished playing the rest of the “big six” (or seven, if you include Leicester), but Manchester City have many games to go among the top teams.

So my practice over the years has been to compare team performance to corresponding fixtures in the previous season, and to look at the points difference. Then, assuming the rest of the season goes just like last year, we can project who is likely to end up where.

Now, relegation and promotion introduces a source of complication, but we can “solve” that by replacing last season’s relegated teams with this season’s promoted teams (18th by Championship winners, 19th by Championship runners-up, and 20th by Championship playoff winners).

It’s not the first time I’m doing this analysis. I’d done it once in 2013-14, and once in 2014-15. You will notice that the graphs look similar as well – that’s how lazy I am.

Anyways, this is the points differential thus far compared to corresponding fixtures of last season. 

 

 

 

Leicester are the most improved team from last season, having scored 8 points more than in corresponding fixtures from last season. Sheffield United, albeit starting from a low base, have done extremely well as well. And last season’s runners-up Liverpool are on a plus 6.

The team that has done worst relative to last season is Tottenham Hotspur, at minus 13. Key players entering the final years of their contract and not signing extensions, and scanty recruitment over the last 2-3 years, haven’t helped. And then there is Manchester City at minus 9!

So assuming the rest of the season’s fixtures go according to last season’s corresponding fixtures, what will the final table look  like at the end of the season?
We see that if Liverpool replicate their results from last season for the rest of the fixtures, they should win the league comfortably.

What is more interesting is the gaps between 1-2, 2-3 and 3-4. Each of the top three positions is likely to be decided “comfortably”, with a fairly congested mid-table.

As mentioned earlier, this kind of analysis is unfair to the promoted teams. It is highly unlikely that Sheffield will get relegated based on the start they’ve had.

We’ll repeat this analysis after a couple of months to see where the league stands!

Prodigy

Sometimes I wonder if being a prodigy is more of a curse than a blessing. The sense of having “achieved something” fairly early in life leads to a lowering of objectives, not being excited by anything, and a sort of satisfaction of having “arrived” that reduces motivation to do anything else in life.

A few prodigies keep up the fight and make a successful career for themselves as adults (eg. Sachin Tendulkar). Most fall by the wayside. And find it struggle to come to terms of having become ordinary. And find being an adult incredibly hard, and then get into all sorts of issues.

Five years ago, the Guardian identified the “best young player from each Premier League club“, and they’ve kept at monitoring the progress. Five years later, the results aren’t encouraging.

Out of our 20 players from the English top flight in that 2014-15 season, only three are playing at Premier League clubs now: Marcus Rashford, Dominic Solanke and Hamza Choudhury.

That may not sound very impressive but some others are at Premier League clubs but on loan in the Championship. Six of the 20 are playing second-tier football (five in England and one, Harley Willard, in Iceland) so nearly half are playing at a very high level. On the other hand, two of the 20 – as far as we are aware – are not playing football any more.

While it is natural for parents to push their kids and get them to “achieve something” at a young age, such achievements in most cases don’t result in any lasting advantage as adults. Instead, children who achieve something get labelled as “prodigies” or “gifted” or “talented” and these labels only seek to increase pressures on them as they grow up, rather than helping them build sustainable careers.

OK I might be ranting so I’ll stop here.

Data, football and astrology

Jonathan Wilson has an amusing article on data and football, and how many data-oriented managers in football have also been incredibly superstitious.

This is in response to BT Sport’s (one of the UK broadcasters of the Premier League) announcement of it’s “Unscripted” promotion where “some of the world’s foremost experts in both sports and artificial intelligence to produce a groundbreaking prophecy of the forthcoming season”.

Wilson writes:

I was reminded also of the 1982 film adaptation of Agatha Christie’s 1939 novel Murder is Easy in which a computer scientist played by Bill Bixby enters the details of the case into a programme he has coded to give the name of the murderer. As it turns out, the programmer knows this is nonsense and is merely trying to gauge the reaction of the heroine, played by Lesley-Anne Down, when her name flashes on the screen.

But this, of course, is not what data-based analysis is for. Its predictive element deals in probability not prophecy. It is not possessed of some oracular genius. (That said, it is an intriguing metaphysical question: what if you had all the data, not just ability and fitness, but every detail of players’ diet, relationships and mental state, the angle of blades of grass on the pitch, an assessment of how the breathing of fans affected air flow in the stadium … would the game’s course then be inevitable?)

This reminded me of my own piece that I wrote last year about how data science “is simply the new astrology“.