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.
Published at SB Nation.
What could have led a manager to look at Spurs on December 16th and decide that they should maintain the same, obviously failed defensive tactics of the previous month? Did Tim Sherwood think a disorganized press and a shifting block were the path to success? Perhaps, instead, the players just kept playing defense the same way because they weren’t instructed to change in the first place. Sherwood’s comments to the media after the Chelsea loss suggest a real failure to understand that his tactics had not been working previous to that defeat. So whether out of simple incompetence or a more complex misunderstanding of his club’s performance, Sherwood left Tottenham running a tactical set-up that was entirely doomed to fail.
Published at SB Nation.
Part 1: On Winning Close Matches (In Which I Predicted Cardiff City’s relegation):
How well a club does in close matches in the first half of the season does not usefully predict how well the club will perform in close matches in the second half.
I’m not saying that winning close matches is “luck.” In general, I think that winning clubs have usually played better than losing clubs. But whatever it is that leads to good performances in close matches, usually it doesn’t carry over as the season progresses. We shouldn’t use points taken from close matches as a good predictor of future points.
Part 2: On Losing Close Matches:
Even these clubs don’t usually do better than 3-2-1 in close matches, and they average more like 2-2-1. Spurs’ 8-4-2 record so far i close matches would be among the best on this table, which is populated mostly by title contenders. I’d guess here that anything over 1.8 or so points per match in games decided by under two goals is probably unsustainable. Even Mourinho’s 2004-2005 Chelsea only took 2.1 points per match in this subset of the season.