The other lesson is that the side with the next-largest budget after the top four should not lose hope. Arsenal just needed Liverpool to underplay their wage bill for a few years while Wenger steered his side to 70-point seasons, which was enough to maintain the Gunners’ position in the Champions League. Last year, Liverpool didn’t need the good fortune of Manchester United having perhaps the worst points-to-wage-bill season on record, but they could have made the Champions League with a merely good season as well.
For teams on the lower end, the lift is much more strenuous. The following graph of inflation-adjusted wage bills shows just how difficult it is to build a 70-point squad without elite resources.
Now, there is nothing necessarily wrong with not being Bayer Leverkusen (he said, grudgingly). The counter-press need not be an attacking strategy. It can stop opposition attacks before they begin and enable a slower possession-based game. That is precisely how van Gaal’s press works. It is debatable whether this is the best way to use a press and whether Manchester United’s attack is working at full capacity. But the numbers and my observation both suggest the reason United are not replicating the exciting gegenpressing style is because they just don’t want to.
By contrast, Tottenham Hotspur look like a club that is trying but failing. Under Mauricio Pochettino, a manager who learned these tactics playing for Marcelo Bielsa in Argentina, Spurs have created a good number of attacks at speed (32) and stand third in the league with 89 shots attempted early in possession. These are not world-beating numbers, but they reflect a club trying to speed up the tempo of the match with their press.
These complaints arise every time an attack sputters out near the penalty area with a difficult pass that doesn’t quite reach its target. Clubs that focus on intricate passing attacks through the center of the pitch, most famously Barcelona and Arsenal, regularly field such complaints from fans and pundits alike. And yet, statistical analysis can demonstrate the value of attempting that one extra pass within the penalty box.
The statistic here is something I call “danger zone passes.” The “danger zone” is the region in the center of the 18-yard box from which most goals are scored. DZ passes refer to passes which are played from within a few yards of this central area.
In general, if you get the ball at your feet in this region, you typically have at least a five or 10 percent chance of scoring with a reasonably taken shot. Choosing to pass essentially means letting that opportunity go by, but there are great benefits to passing if you can connect with a teammate in a better position.
Published at the Washington Post.
But even within a stratified system, better- and worse-run clubs stand out. I did a quick regression based on points and inflation-adjusted payroll to find the expected points for a club based on its total payroll. This does not include transfer spending, but for most clubs transfer spending tracks with wage bill reasonably well. The results can be seen at the end of the article. A few top clubs stand out. In the scatter plot below, I have marked a few clubs in particular. At the top end, you can see the impressive numbers of Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United and David Moyes’s Everton teams. At the bottom end, Newcastle United shows up as a consistent underperformer regardless of who has been in charge.
Published at ESPN.
Clubs with wage bills among the top four in the league tend to do very well no matter the circumstance, but particularly at the New Year. They average about 2.0 points per match over most of the season; during the holidays, that rate jumps 10 percent to 2.2 points per match. This means that every festive period, one of the four richest clubs wins a match they otherwise would have drawn or lost. Given that the title and fourth place races are often decided by a point or two, those extra points at the holiday can make all the difference.
At the same time, not every high-payroll club sees the benefits of depth every year. If a high-payroll club like Manchester United or Arsenal goes on a run through the winter fixtures, it should not be surprising, but such a run is in no way guaranteed.
Published at SB Nation.
Now, one of the peculiarities of shot quality is that there are lots of ways, tactically, to take good shots. Arsenal are the classic example, they pass and pass, looking especially for through-balls into dangerous areas, and eventually look to “pass it into the net.” The traditional passing game is our primary model of high-quality shot-taking, but in fact it’s not the only one.
The exact opposite tactical method, the “go 4-4-2 and put crosses in” strategy, also produces high-quality shots. If your primary strategy around the box is to get the ball wide and try to play crosses into dangerous areas, you’re going to be taking relatively few low-value speculative long balls. And even though shots off crosses from close areas have lower expectation than normal shots from these areas, they’re still a lot better than shooting from outside the box or from wide areas in the 18-yard box. A bunch of those dots in the top right are Arsene Wenger’s clubs, but another good portion are Tony Pulis.
Published at SB Nation.
So Newcastle’s turnaround is not unusual. Clubs that massively underperform their expected goals early in the season typically click back into form and start winning matches at a respectable rate. These teams started out the season with only about four points on average, but they averaged about 41 points over the remainder of the season. So if Newcastle follow the averages, they should end up easily safe with a mid-40s points haul.