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.

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!

Amazon and Sony Liv

Amazon is pretty bad at design of products they’re not pioneers in. They’ve built a great shopping engine (25 years ago) and a great cloud service (15 years ago), but these were both things they were pioneers in.

Amazon being Amazon, however, they have a compulsive need to be in pretty much every industry, and so they’ve launched clones of lots of other businesses. However, their product design in these is far from optimal, and the user experience is generally very underwhelming.

Prime Video has a worse user experience than Netflix. The search function is much worse. The machine learning (for recommendations) isn’t great. The X-ray is good, but overall I don’t have as pleasant a time watching Prime as I do with Netflix.

However, the degree to which Prime Video is worse than Netflix is far far smaller than the degree to which Amazon Music is worse than Spotify. The only thing going for Amazon Music (which I only use because it comes free with my prime delivery membership in India) is that they have inventory.

Spotify in India has been unable to secure rights to a lot of classic rock and metal bands, such as Iron Maiden and Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin and Dream Theater. And these form a heavy part of my routine listening. And so I’m forced to use Amazon Music (Apple Music has these bands as well, but I have to pay extra for that).

The product (Amazon Music) is atrocious. The learning is next to nothing. After five months of using the service to exclusively listen to Classic Rock and Heavy Metal, and zero Indian music, the home page still recommends to me Bollywood, Punjabi and Tamil stuff! History is not properly maintained. Getting to the album or playlist (the less said about playlists on Amazon, the better) I want takes way too much more effort than it does on Spotify.

In other words, the only thing that keeps Amazon going in businesses they’re not pioneers in is inventory – Prime Video works because it has movies and shows other streaming services don’t have. Amazon Music is used because it has music that Spotify doesn’t.

I figured it is a similar case with Sony Liv, Sony’s streaming service in India. They sit on a bunch of lucrative monopolies, such as rights to broadcasting Test cricket in a lot of countries (all three Test series being played right now are on Sony, for example), Champions League football and so on. Beyond that it’s an atrocity to watch them.

I remember missing a goal in the Liverpool-Porto Champions League quarterfinal because of a temporary power cut. There was no way in the broadcast to go back and see the goal. If I by mistake pause for a couple of seconds, I’m forever behind “live” (unless I refresh). Yesterday during the classic Ashes Test, the app simply gave up when I tried to load the game.

The product is atrocious (actually more atrocious than Amazon Music), but people are forced to use it only because they have a monopoly on content. And in that way, it is similar to Amazon, which can get away with atrocious products only because they have the inventory!

I’m glad the Premier League is on Hotstar, which is mostly a pleasure to watch! (actually back in the day when I had cable TV, the star sports bouquet had significantly superior production values to the sony-zee-ten bouquet)

This is Anfield

 

I had a massive fanboy time this morning, as I went on my long-awaited (nearly 14 years) pilgrimage to Anfield, home of the Liverpool Football Club. As I had mentioned in my post last night, this was the explicit purpose of my visit to Liverpool, and I had left home with only three bookings – train to Liverpool, hotel in Liverpool and the Anfield tour.

So after having polished off a “large Full English” (in hindsight, I’m thankful for that) at a local cafe close to my hotel, I took an Uber to Anfield. The driver was also a Liverpool fan and we spent time chatting about last afternoon’s game, when Liverpool played insipidly to draw across Stanley Park with Everton. I was in good time for the tour (that was to start at 11), and spent the time walking along the outside of the Main Stand.

There are benches dedicated to Liverpool’s greatest players of all time, and the floor is tiled with names of members (not all members I think – perhaps those that made contributions to rebuild the Main Stand 3 years ago). I paid my respects at the Hillsborough Memorial and walked back to the Kop end where the entrance to the Stadium Tour is situated.

The tour started on the sixth floor of the newly redeveloped Main Stand (if you’ve wondered why TV broadcasts of Liverpool games suddenly started showing a very high angle, this is the reason). Our guide Terry first took us to the hall where there were photos of “Liverpool’s six great managers”.

The choices were interesting – Shankly, Paisley, Fagan, Dalglish, Houllier and Benitez. As the Elo ratings show, these were all definitely managers who improved Liverpool, sometimes in a significant way (though the last two also let things slip considerably towards the end of their reigns.

I sensed some sort of discomfort in the group. Evidently, a majority were Liverpool fans, but talks about “the purpose of the club being to win trophies” and talking up of the number of trophies won so far brought up the painful reality that we’ve “AJMd” on a league, a europa league and a champions league in the last five years itself, and look on course to AJM the league once again. Nobody really wanted to point out that things aren’t going as well as we would like.

In any case, the tour moved on and our guide Terry was excellent, though sometimes he went back to familiar cliches. Describing the miracle of Istanbul, for example, he made the familiar joke of “Milan had Kaka, and we had Djimi Traore, and yet we managed to win”.

We moved on to a view of the pitch from the highest tier of the main stand, my first impression was that this is a rather “cosy” stadium. Now, the only other stadiums I’ve been to are the behemoths Camp Nou and Wembley, and in comparison to them, Anfield looked rather intimate. That also suggested why the crowd at Anfield is sometimes like “Liverpool’s 12th man”, as a poster outside the away dressing room claimed.

The small stadium means the crowd noise can reverberate easily around the stadium. The Anfield Road End is yet to be redeveloped, and once that happens the stadium will become “taller”, meaning the noise levels might get higher. Looking at the pitch from up the Main Stand gave me another regret – that I haven’t watched a game at Anfield (though I did watch Liverpool play at Wembley). Hopefully sometime in this lifetime I’ll fulfil that!

There were cutouts of various players placed near the dressing rooms. Salah’s was the most popular as everyone lined up to take a selfie with him. Rather than waiting there, I managed selfies with cutouts of all of Firmino, van Dijk and Alisson. The dressing rooms were impressive (especially the Home dressing room). I also found the differences between home and away dressing rooms interesting – the home room is soundproof while the away room isn’t. The home room has lighting control to adjust the lighting to the pitch. The away room has no such facilities. These are subtle differences we don’t appreciate as TV viewers, but can have a profound impact on the game.

And based on this, I don’t mind the draws at Manchester United and Everton that much!

 

Football Elo Application

This morning, I discovered the Club Elo Ratings, and promptly proceeded to analyse Liverpool FC’s performance over the years based on these ratings, and then correlated the performance by manager.

Then, playing around with the data of different clubs, I realised that there are plenty more stories to be told using this data, and they are best told by people who are passionate about their respective clubs. So the best thing I could do is to put the data out there (in a form similar to what I did for Liverpool), so that people can analyse how their clubs have performed over the years, and under different managers.

Sitting beside me as I was doing this analysis, my wife popped in with a pertinent observation. Now, she doesn’t watch football. She hates it that I watch so much football. Nevertheless, she has a strong eye for metrics. And watching me analyse club performance by manager, she asked me if I can analyse manager performance by club!

And so I’ve added that as well to the Shiny app that I’ve built. It might look a bit clunky, with two unrelate graphs, one on top of the other, but since the two are strongly related, it makes sense to have both in the same app. The managers listed in the bottom dropdown are those who have managed at least two clubs in the Premier League.

If you’re interested in Premier League football, you should definitely check out the app. I think there are some interesting insights to be gleaned (such as what I presented in this morning’s post).

Built by Shanks

This morning, I found this tweet by John Burn-Murdoch, a statistician at the Financial Times, about a graphic he had made for a Simon Kuper (of Soccernomics fame) piece on Jose Mourinho.

Burn-Murdoch also helpfully shared the code he had written to produce this graphic, through which I discovered ClubElo, a website that produces chess-style Elo ratings for football clubs. They have a free and open API, through which Burn-Murdoch got the data for the above graphic, and which I used to download all-time Elo ratings for all clubs available (I can be greedy that way).

So the first order of business was to see how Liverpool’s rating has moved over time. The initial graph looked interesting, but not very interesting, so I decided to overlay it with periods of managerial regimes (the latter data I got through wikipedia). And this is what the all-time Elo rating of Liverpool looks like.

It is easy to see that the biggest improvement in the club’s performance came under the long reign of Bill Shankly (no surprises there), who took them from the Second Division to winning the old First Division. There was  brief dip when Shankly retired and his assistant Bob Paisley took over (might this be the time when Paisley got intimidated by Shankly’s frequent visits to the club, and then asked him not to come any more?), but Paisley consolidated on Shankly’s improvement to lead the club to its first three European Cups.

Around 2010, when the club was owned by Americans Tom Hicks and George Gillett and on a decline in terms of performance, this banner became popular at Anfield.

The Yanks were subsequently yanked following a protracted court battle, to be replaced by another Yank (John W Henry), under whose ownership the club has done much better. What is also interesting from the above graph is the managerial change decisions.

At the time, Kenny Dalglish’s sacking at the end of the 2011-12 season (which ended with Liverpool losing the FA Cup final to Chelsea) seemed unfair, but the Elo rating shows that the club’s rating had fallen below the level when Dalglish took over (initially as caretaker). Then there was a steep ascent under Brendan Rodgers (leading to second in 2013-14), when Suarez bit and got sold and the team went into deep decline.

Again, we can see that Rodgers got sacked when the team had reverted to the rating that he had started off with. That’s when Jurgen Klopp came in, and thankfully so far there has been a much longer period of ascendance (which will hopefully continue). It is interesting to see, though, that the club’s current rating is still nowhere near the peak reached under Rafa Benitez (in the 2008-9 title challenge).

Impressed by the story that Elo Ratings could tell, I got data on all Premier League managers, and decided to repeat the analysis for all clubs. Here is what the analysis for the so-called “top 6” clubs returns:

We see, for example, that Chelsea’s ascendancy started not with Mourinho’s first term as manager, but towards the end of Ranieri’s term – when Roman Abramovich had made his investment. We find that Jose Mourinho actually made up for the decline under David Moyes and Louis van Gaal, and then started losing it. In that sense, Manchester United have got their sacking timing right (though they were already in decline by the time they finished last season in second place).

Manchester City also seem to have done pretty well in terms of the timing of managerial changes. And Spurs’s belief in Mauricio Pochettino, who started off badly, seems to have paid off.

I wonder why Elo Ratings haven’t made more impact in sports other than chess!

Bankers predicting football

So the Football World Cup season is upon us, and this means that investment banking analysts are again engaging in the pointless exercise of trying to predict who will win the World Cup. And the funny thing this time is that thanks to MiFiD 2 regulations, which prevent banking analysts from giving out reports for free, these reports aren’t in the public domain.

That means we’ve to rely on media reports of these reports, or on people tweeting insights from them. For example, the New York Times has summarised the banks’ predictions on the winner. And this scatter plot from Goldman Sachs will go straight into my next presentation on spurious correlations:

Different banks have taken different approaches to predict who will win the tournament. UBS has still gone for a classic Monte Carlo simulation  approach, but Goldman Sachs has gone one ahead and used “four different methods in artificial intelligence” to predict (for the third consecutive time) that Brazil will win the tournament.

In fact, Goldman also uses a Monte Carlo simulation, as Business Insider reports.

The firm used machine learning to run 200,000 models, mining data on team and individual player attributes, to help forecast specific match scores. Goldman then simulated 1 million possible variations of the tournament in order to calculate the probability of advancement for each squad.

But an insider in Goldman with access to the report tells me that they don’t use the phrase itself in the report. Maybe it’s a suggestion that “data scientists” have taken over the investment research division at the expense of quants.

I’m also surprised with the reporting on Goldman’s predictions. Everyone simply reports that “Goldman predicts that Brazil will win”, but surely (based on the model they’ve used), that prediction has been made with a certain probability? A better way of reporting would’ve been to say “Goldman predicts Brazil most likely to win, with X% probability” (and the bank’s bets desk in the UK could have placed some money on it).

ING went rather simple with their forecasts – simply took players’ transfer values, and summed them up by teams, and concluded that Spain is most likely to win because their squad is the “most valued”. Now, I have two major questions about this approach – firstly, it ignores the “correlation term” (remember the famous England conundrum of the noughties of fitting  Gerrard and Lampard into the same eleven?), and assumes a set of strong players is a strong team. Secondly, have they accounted for inflation? And if so, how have they accounted for inflation? Player valuation (about which I have a chapter in my book) has simply gone through the roof in the last year, with Mo Salah at £35 million being considered a “bargain buy”.

Nomura also seems to have taken a similar approach, though they have in some ways accounted for the correlation term by including “team momentum” as a factor!

Anyway, I look forward to the football! That it is live on BBC and ITV means I get to watch the tournament from the comfort of my home (a luxury in England!). Also being in England means all matches are at a sane time, so I can watch more of this World Cup than the last one.