Night trains

In anticipation of tonight’s Merseyside Derby, I was thinking of previous instances of this fixture at Goodison Park. My mind first went back to the game in the 2013-14 season, which was a see-saw 3-3 draw, with the Liverpool backline being incredibly troubled by Romelu Lukaku, and Daniel Sturridge scoring with a header immediately after coming on to make it 3-3 (and Joe Allen had missed a sitter earlier when Liverpool were 2-1 up).

I remember my wife coming back home from work in the middle of that game, and I didn’t pay attention to her until it was over. She wasn’t particularly happy about that, but the intense nature of the game gave me a fever (that used to happen often in the 2013-14 and 2008-9 seasons).

Then I remember Everton winning 3-0 once, though I don’t remember when that was (googling tells me that was in the 2006-7 season, when I was already a Liverpool fan, but not watching regularly).

And then I started thinking about what happened to this game last season, and then remembered that it was a 0-0 draw. Incidentally, it was on the same day that I travelled to Liverpool – I had a ticket for an Anfield Tour the next morning.

I now see that I had written about getting to Liverpool after I got to my hotel that night. However, I haven’t written about what happened before that. My train from Euston was around 8:00 pm. I remember leaving home (which was in Ealing) at around 6 or so, and then taking two tubes (Central changing to Victoria at Oxford Circus) to get to Euston. And then buying chewing gum and a bottle of water at Marks and Spencer while waiting for my train.

I also remember that while leaving home that evening, I was scared. I was psyched out. It wasn’t supposed to be that way. This was a trip to Liverpool I had been wanting to make for the best part of 14 years. I had kept putting it off during my stay in London until I knew that I was going to move out of London in two weeks’ time. Liverpool were having a great season (they would go on to win the Champions League, and only narrowly lose the Premiser League title).

I was supposed to be excited. Instead I was nervous. My nerve possibly settled only after I was seated in the train that evening.

Thinking about it, I basically hate night trains (well, this wasn’t an overnight train, but it started late in the evening). I hate night buses as well. And this only applies to night trains and buses that take me away from my normal place of residence – starting towards “home” late in the night never worries me.

This anxiety possibly started when I was in IIT Madras. I remember clearly then that I used to sleep comfortably without fail while travelling from Madras to Bangalore, but almost always never slept or only slept fitfully when travelling in the opposite direction. While in hindsight it all appears fine, I never felt particularly settled when I was at IITM.

And consequently, anything that reminds me of travelling to IITM psyches me out. I always took the night train while travelling there, and the anxiety would start on the drive to the railway station. Even now, sometimes, I get anxious while taking that road late in the evening.

Then, taking night trains has been indelibly linked to travelling to Madras, and something that I’ve come to fear as well. While I haven’t taken a train in India since 2012, my experience with the trip to Liverpool last year tells me that even non-overnight night trains have that effect on me.

And then, of course, there is the city of Chennai as well. The smells of the city after the train crosses Basin Bridge trigger the first wave of anxiety. Stepping out of the railway station and the thought of finding an autorickshaw trigger the next wave (things might be different now with Uber/Ola, but I haven’t experienced that).

The last time I went to Chennai was for a close friend’s wedding in 2012. I remember waking up early on the day of the wedding and then having a massive panic attack. I spent long enough time staring at the ceiling of my hotel room that I ended up missing the muhurtham.

I’ve made up my mind that the next time I have to go to Chennai, I’ll just drive there. And for sure, I’m not going to take a train leaving Bangalore in the night.

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.

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).

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!

Liverpool FC: 2014 vs 2019

Last night I watched the first half of the Champions League semifinal between FC Barcelona and Liverpool FC, going off to bed when the score was 1-0 in favour of Barcelona. I woke up this morning to much dismay to see that Liverpool lost 3-0, but I’d constructed this post in my head when Liverpool was trailing 1-0, and so executing now.

It’s about the difference between the title-challenging Liverpool of 2014 and the title-challenging Liverpool of this season. Luis Suarez, in a brilliant interview with Sid Lowe, had mentioned that the current team is much better than the 2014 team, but last night’s Champions League game suggests that the two teams five years apart are simply two very different teams.

Last night Barcelona went ahead with a goal from Suarez in the 25th minute. It wasn’t an easy goal. There was a cross from the left by Jordi Alba, and Suarez got ahead, and managed to get the precise touch required to put it past Alisson into Liverpool’s goal. Liverpool had dominated the game until then, but with that one little half chance Suarez had converted.

Ten minutes later Sadio Mane got a chance to equalise, from a broadly similar chance. It was another ball above the defence from Mo Salah, but Mane hit it to the sky. And that was representative of Liverpool this season – both Mane and Salah have required lots of chances to score.

In that sense, Liverpool’s defence and midfield this season is far superior to the title-challenging side of 2014, when Suarez led the line. Back then few chances were created, but Suarez and an in-form Daniel Sturridge would take most of them, meaning that even with the midfield creating few chances and the defence leaking lots of goals, Liverpool could mount a challenge.

One could only imagine how this season’s team would have performed with someone of Suarez’s finishing ability leading the line. Salah, Mane and Firmino are no doubt a brilliant front three, but their conversion rate is low. If only one of them had a higher conversion rate, we wouldn’t have been struggling in both the League and the Champions League this season.

 

Liverpool

While I absolutely remain a fan of Liverpool Football Club, and had a fascinating tour of their facilities this morning, I’m not such a big fan of the city itself. Somehow overall the experience there (barring some taxi rides and the Anfield experience itself) was not particularly great.

For starters, it doesn’t help that the city has lousy weather. Being up north, in England and on the coast means there are strong winds, and it can be pretty bad when it rains. Then, when I got off the train station last night, the city seemed dead and the roads that I walked on until I found a taxi were deserted.

And this afternoon, after I had finished my stadium tour and went to the renowned Albert Docks, the experience there was similar as well. Rather dull and without too many people around. And once again the weather didn’t help matters.

And then there is the hotel I stayed in last night. The check in and check out were rather pleasant and I mostly got a good night’s sleep as well, but a former office building converted to a hotel can be a bit depressing. The room was rather small, with the bed stuck to two walls. And a part of it had been earmarked for the bathroom anyway. Even this morning when I got out of the hotel the area wasn’t really bustling (this was in central Liverpool).

And while I found the breakfast to be pretty good (I got a a “large English breakfast”), the service and decor of the restaurant wasn’t particularly appealing. And as I got out of the restaurant, I saw a “up for sale” board on the door!

Anyway, it’s just a few data points. However, in hindsight I feel less bad now about not booking my ticket to York yesterday itself, which would’ve cut my journey cost by 50%. Without a booked ticket, not finding the place particularly interesting meant I could quickly get to the station and take the next train onward.

So here I am, nearing York (I’m finishing this post now in a hurry since I should reach any time now, and I don’t want to scramble). The views on the journey have been rather stunning. The big breakfast meant that I didn’t need to have lunch today. And I had some beer and peanuts and cake on the train and am feeling happy about it now!

The only sore point is that soon after I had bought beer from the cart on the train, the conductor announced that the toilets on train aren’t working. In any case, York isn’t far away!

Cheers

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!

 

You’ll Never Walk Alone

I first became a fan of Liverpool FC in April 2005, on the day of the first leg of their Champions League semifinal against Chelsea. While I was in London for a month and half after that, I never really executed on the pilgrimage to Anfield. Instead I went on trips around the country which my friends had planned.

For a long time, this was on my To-Do list. Yet, I continued to be lazy. I moved to England exactly two years ago, but had somehow kept putting off my trip to Liverpool. The initial plan had been to do it with family, carrying my daughter as she put her hands on the “this is anfield” signboard.

Finally, as it happens, I’ve made the trip just before we end our current stint in London and move back to India. And unlike that plan of that photo-op of my daughter with her hand on the “this is anfield” sign, I’ve come to Liverpool alone.

I don’t know the last time I had one an “unplanned trip”. This time I did some planning, though, but haven’t booked much. As things stand now, I’ve only booked my train to Liverpool (which I took this evening), my hotel for the night (where I’m writing this from) and the Anfield tour for tomorrow morning.

In my eagerness to get to the hotel after the train rolled in to Liverpool Lime Street at 10:20 PM tonight, I exited the station without bothering to see where the taxi rank was. And then google maps told me I could get a bus nearby, so I walked alone for a bit. There was a bunch of bus stops but it was unclear what bus I should take. So I walked on.

And presently an empty taxi came that way. And I hopped in. The taxi driver told me that my hotel is “one of the several old office complexes that have now become hotels” in Liverpool, “all thanks to the football”, he said. The room does look weird. It’s among the smallest hotel rooms I’ve stayed in, perhaps smaller than the one in Hong Kong.

I dont have the enthu to get up now, so here’s a photo of my room from my bed (that glass wall you see on the left is the bathroom). I trust what my taxi driver told me – I can fully imagine this little space having been a meeting room or office cabin once upon a time.

Anyways, off to bed now. Anfield beckons tomorrow morning! Never mind today’s derby result, and that we’re behind in the title race now.

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!

What Ails Liverpool

So Liverpool FC has had a mixed season so far. They’re second in the Premier League with 36 points from 14 games (only points dropped being draws against ManCity, Chelsea and Arsenal), but are on the verge of going out of the Champions League, having lost all three away games.

Yesterday’s win over Everton was damn lucky, down to a 96th minute freak goal scored by Divock Origi (I’d forgotten he’s still at the club). Last weekend’s 3-0 against Watford wasn’t as comfortable as the scoreline suggested, the scoreline having been opened only midway through the second half. The 2-0 against Fulham before that was similarly a close-fought game.

Of concern to most Liverpool fans has been the form of the starting front three – Mo Salah, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane. The trio has missed a host of chances this season, and the team has looked incredibly ineffective in the away losses in the Champions League (the only shot on target in the 2-1 loss against PSG being the penalty that was scored by Milner).

There are positives, of course. The defence has been tightened considerably compared to last season. Liverpool aren’t leaking goals the way they did last season. There have been quite a few clean sheets so far this season. So far there has been no repeat of last season’s situation where they went 4-1 up against ManCity, only to quickly let in two goals and then set up a tense finish.

So my theory is this – each of the front three of Liverpool has an incredibly low strike rate. I don’t know if the xG stat captures this, but the number of chances required by each of Mane, Salah and Firmino before they can convert is rather low. If the average striker converts one in two chances, all of these guys convert one in four (these numbers are pulled out of thin air. I haven’t looked at the statistics).

And even during the “glory days” of last season when Liverpool was scoring like crazy, this low strike rate remained. Instead, what helped then was a massive increase in the number of chances created. The one game I watched live (against Spurs at Wembley), what struck me was the number of chances Salah kept missing. But as the chances kept getting created, he ultimately scored one (Liverpool lost 4-1).

What I suspect is that as Klopp decided to tighten things up at the back this season, the number of chances being created has dropped. And with the low strike rate of each of the front three, this lower number of chances translates into much lower number of goals being scored. If we want last season’s scoring rate, we might also have to accept last season’s concession rate (though this season’s goalie is much much better).

There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.