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.

Goalkeeper Mishmash

So one of the comments on my previous post about goalkeepers talked about how the relegated teams (Wolves, Bolton and Blackburn) had the worst keepers. So I wondered how they would have done had they had better goalies. I’ve still not figured out how to correlate a goalie’s distribution success to goals scored and so I’ll simply stick to shot stopping criteria.

I use the ratio of big chances to goals in each game to figure out how a different goalkeeper would have reacted. So if I have a goalie with a 90% shot-stopping ability and the opposing team has 10 big chances in the game, then I concede 1 goal. However, if my goalie has a 50% stopping ability I let in 5.

Based on the shot-stopping success ratio of each goalkeeper and the number of big chances faced by each team in each game, I have estimated the number of goals the team would have let in in each game. Comparing this against goals scored, I have come up with a hypothetical points tally for the season.

I know I abuse excel graphics a lot but I couldn’t think of any non-excel method to present the data here. I paired each goalie who played at least 1000 minutes during the season with each team and estimated how many points the team would have raked up.

Goalie Mishmash

Some pertinent observations.

1. The teams on whom the quality of goalie had the most impact are Arsenal, Blackburn, Wigan and Wolves. This goes to show how much Arsenal have to credit Sczsesny for their ability to reach the Champions’ League.

2. Everton is the team where the maximum and minimum possible points due to change in goalie is minimum (4, opposed to 14 for Arsenal). Shows that they have a pretty compact and tight defence, and what stops them from a top four slot is the quality of attack.

3. Due to the low number of big chances that occur in each game and due to rounding of goals conceded, you see some kind of a discontinuity in scores as you go down the list, as well as lots of ties. There is no mistake in the data or the calculations.

4. Manchester United has a much lower “goalkeeper impact” than Manchester City. With a lesser goalie than Joe Hart, it is unlikely City would have won the title.

5. Since we use overall averages of a goalie’s shot stopping ability, these simulations show different numbers for “real” goalie-team pairs than what the teams actually achieved.

6. The difference in maximum and minimum possible points as a function of a goalkeeper is a good indication of the overall quality of a team’s defense. The table below ranks the teams as per quality of defense.

defencequality

7. While Blackburn and Wolves both had poor defence, part of Bolton’s relegation blame can be attributed to the quality (or otherwise) of their goalkeepers (Adam Bogdan and Juusi Jaaskaleinen). Which makes it even more surprising that West Ham (upon re-entry to the Premier League) sold Robert Green (to QPR, where he warms the bench) and recruited Jaaskaleinen in his place.

8. Last season, Liverpool had a pretty good defence (especially their first-choice back four of Johnson-Skrtel-Agger-Enrique). Their attacking ability (and especially their finishing – same story this season) let them down badly.