What the Hell Are We Doing? Goals and Transfer Shopping

ss_moneyball_gunshipToday’s piece is inspired by the early summer transfer signings. The goals in the title don’t refer to actual goals that are scored on the pitch, though that’s what I normally write about. Today, the word “goals” is referring to team milestones.

Literally, what is your team trying to accomplish this year?

Are they simply hoping to survive in the top tier of football? To snuggle deep into mid-table obscurity? To compete for a spot in Europe? To get into the Champions League? To win the Champions League?

All of those goals have different requirements in terms of what kind of players your team should be buying, how much they should be spending, how many players are needed in the first place, etc. Everything in football has a cost, not just in terms of £££, but also in terms of expenditure.  Money is a resource, but so are effective player minutes. At some point, rotation becomes absolutely vital, even for smaller teams.

Want your team to make a deep cup run or two? You either need a bigger squad, or you can expect it to cost you places in the league. Given how much the English Premier League now pays out in prize money based on league finish, that money adds up quickly.

Want your team to compete for the Europa League as well? That will burn a lot of player minutes. The more minutes your team plays, the more likely they are to get injured. If your first team is absorbing all of those minutes, then your best players will be the ones who get injured, and that has an effect on every other competition you are in. Also, even if nobody really mentions this, fatigue is totally a thing.

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Why Good Teams Should Be Terrified of Players With Bad Passing Stats

giroud_double_denimThose of you that follow me on Twitter may have seen me mention my general confusion at Arsene’s Wenger’s “big man” policy. For years, Wenger has purchased (or in Bendtner’s case, pushed the development of) tall forwards, while being generally happy to buy midgets for placement in the rest of the team.

This is odd for a lot of reasons.

The first reason is that building a speedy, zoomy, variable attack and then plonking a tall, slow guy in the center of it is strange. Granted, they are probably not that slow for tall guys, but compared to Walcott and Gervinho, Chamakh, Bendt, and Giroud are noticeably not fast.  It takes attacking build-up play that can be really difficult to mark, and suddenly simplifies it dramatically for the defense. Why? Van Persie moves like a cat, but he’s only six feet tall. Adebayor was the one tall forward that worked for Arsenal, but he has a fairly unique skill set in that he’s tall, fast, has a good first touch, and is totally unplayable when he cares. Which is about 10% of the time. If Wenger was going for the Adebayor ideal, none of these other guys come close to matching up.

The second thing that bugs me are the percentages.  People always say “you want your forwards involved in build-up play.” This is a general truism, but it makes sense. You want all of your attacking players involved in build-up play because it moves the defense around, and makes your attack less predictable.

But what if your forward isn’t very good at passing the ball?

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Serie A Attacking Transfer Targets – The Final Edition

I have too many guys I need to cover today for the usual preamble, at least two of whom were added by request. If you missed the first edition of Serie A analysis, you can find it here.

Now let’s get to it.

Name: Mauro Icardi
Team: Sampdoria (now owned by Inter Milan)
Age: 20
Position: Forward (Centre)
Potential Buyers: SOLD!

For the most part, this series has focused on players whose stats suggest they are future superstars, and who might be available for transfers. Mauro Icardi just transferred to Inter Milan, but a reader asked me to take a look at him, and who am I to deny that?

Year Apps G A ShpG KP Drib Disp Trn PS% NPG/90 Sot%
2013 24(7) 10 2 1.6 0.6 0.5 1.1 1 66.2 0.43 41

Note: An explanation for all the abbreviations is found at the end of this article

When I looked at the stats initially, Icardi was on the bubble as a player the model might be interested in. Only 10 goals isn’t an amazing return from an entire season, but that NPG rate is exceptional for a 20-year-old.  I’m also impressed by his Shots on Target stats. Sampdoria weren’t very good last season, but Icardi made the best of the service he got.

Solid at 20, how good will Icardi be in 5 years?

Solid at 20, how good will Icardi be in 5 years?

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5 Defensive Prospects from La Liga

This is a Guest Post by BallNotABomb

Ted has already done a good job of having a look at those players that have done well, but may be not got the credit for it that they should have on the offensive side of the ball. This is going to be an attempt to do the same for defensive players.

Name: Carlos Martinez

Team: Real Sociedad
Age: 27
Position: Right Back
Potential Buyers: Arsenal, Bayer Leverkusen

Everyone by now has probably heard and maybe seen some of Real Sociedad’s incredible over achievement in the league this season, which culminated in a fourth place finish and a spot in next year’s Champions’ League. Carlos Martinez has as much to do with Sociedad’s good season as any. Having been there all of his career, starting in 2004, he probably has more to do with their success than anyone. However, this could also add a few pennies on to his asking price. Continue reading

Brief Notes on Forward Evaluation and Metrics

Football analysis is in a crazy time right now in that so many things are brand spanking new to the sport that things are changing week by week. I’ve only been working on player stats for about a month and have already changed my approach a couple of times after working through various problems.  At some point in the future, I’ll probably write and re-write a best practices piece on what I’ve discovered doing player analysis, but today I just wanted to cover two really big things for anyone else that is interested in doing this.

Use Non-Penalty Goals
This is the big one for forwards because it levels the playing field and focuses on what really matters.

Penalties are converted at a standard 75-80% clip. Yes, there are some guys like Mario Balotelli or Matt LeTissier who are absurd at taking them and add to the rate, but the point here is that this is a very basic skill that many players have. It is also a different skill to goal scoring from open play, just as free kick taking is a special skill in and of itself. Each club likely has four guys on the pitch at any one time who can convert penalties at the standard rate, so why would you give any extra benefit to the forward who does the converting? If a defender is your penalty taker, and he scores 10 goals a season from the spot, but zero from anywhere else, does that make him good at scoring goals?

Put this another way. AC Milan win an absurd amount of penalties in Serie A every season. (Historically, their rate is a bit crazy. Berlusconi couldn’t inflate the Euro, but he’s done numbers for Milan’s ref bias.) Mario Balotelli had 12 goals in 13 matches in Milan, an incredible rate.

But!

Six of those goals were penalties. In numbers we actually care about, Balotelli had six goals in 13 matches after his move to Milan. This number, though impressive, isn’t quite as staggering as 12.

Assume for a moment Rooney and Robin van Persie convert spot kicks at the same rate.  Van Persie is the penalty taker at United and converts 8 penalties to Rooney’s 0 over the course of the season. Meanwhile Rooney scores 20 open play or free kick goals and RVP scores 12. At the end of the year, they both have 20 goals. However, Rooney’s 20 would have been far harder to achieve and more valuable than RVP’s penalty-aided 20.

I understand some people care about penalty takers in terms of having a leadership or mental strength characteristic, and that’s fine. You can just tick a box on the player evaluation form that says “Takes Penalties” and be done with it. In terms of statistical analysis, you really want to filter out the penalty goals from the much harder earned goals that come via the rest of the game.

Benjamin Pugsley is the first one I saw start to slice data in this way for forwards, and deserves a lot of credit for making me aware of its importance.

Per 90
This one is fairly intuitive once you see it, but not everyone notices it at first. All “rate” stats like tackles, passes taken, completed, goals, assists, key passes, interception – basically anything that is just counted – should not be done on a Per Game basis, but instead should be done at Per 90.

The reason for this is simple: 8 out of the 11 guys in every match play 90 minutes. Thus 90 is the standard unit for football activity. That said, some players get subbed regularly, and some (especially younger players) often appear mostly as subs. How do you normalize their contributions? By dividing those contributions into 90 minute segments.

This isn’t groundbreaking – nearly every sport that is being analysed in this day and age has some sort of time normalization to help compare players. Per 90 is the correct way to do it for football/soccer.

5 Attacking Prospects from Serie A You Need to Know

more_ss_moneyballWe’re in the home stretch on the attacking transfer dossiers, with Serie A the last major league I am expecting to cover this summer*.  For those who are new to this series, the point is to try and unearth interesting and valuable players that are probably not household names… yet. And the conceit is that I try and do it via statistical analysis, as opposed to listening to expert opinion, or just following along with what the media says.

As of this past weekend, noted expert and Match of the Day pundit Mark Lawrenson hadn’t even seen Isco play. That sort of stance on young players isn’t just avant garde, it’s bleeding edge. It takes a special kind of expert to say, “Fah, so what if he’s been in the Champions’ League. I only care when he starts playing in the Premier League.” There will be none of that here, let me assure you.

If you are interested in the earlier dossiers, you can find Germany here, France part 1 and part 2, and Spain part 1 and part 2.

*Unless someone decides to ship me a raft of data from any other Euro countries, in which case I will happily continue the journey of the S.S. Moneyball.

The Quirks of Serie A
I have mentioned that Serie A is a bit of a statistical anomaly both on Twitter and in slightly longer form. Most of Serie A’s leaders in Key Passes for the last two seasons were 29 or older, so I had some concern that the league might be a wasteland for young talent that we would be interested in.  It turns out I needn’t have worried – Serie A is packed with some younger studs, provided you know where to look.

Let’s start with the most talked-about young transfer target of the summer.

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How to Spend No More Than £4.2M Per Player and Win

There is a team that teetered on the brink of bankruptcy in 2005. A payment from one of their biggest historic rivals helped save the club from administration.

In 2008, they finished 13th in the league.

In 2011, they won the league.

In 2012, they won the league again.

That is a fairly impressive rebuilding effort, regardless of what league you are in. Three years from 13th to league winners seems nearly impossible in modern football unless you spend like a sheikh, right?

Their highest transfer fee during the rebuilding period was £4.2M.

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