Does Your Manager Suck? Let’s Find Out!

brucey_babyOne of the things I’ve been mulling over recently is how team stats are both a reflection of the players and of the man in charge. Even in this era of unprecedented player power, a team’s manager still picks the team sheet, and players generally need to do what the manager wants in order to stay in the lineup.

But when it comes to managerial evaluation, more than anywhere else in football, it is incredibly hard to divorce personality from performance. Managers who are grumpy gits with no sense of humor get away with far less than the slick salesmen whose performance is never more than average wherever they land. Strong tactical, technical managers who aren’t that great with the press often seem less fondly remembered than their less successful, but smoother talking counterparts.

How can analytics help with regard to manager evaluation, and better separate the good managers from the bad?

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Holy Shit, Football Is A Game Where Every Team Plays the Percentages

rollingdiceI haven’t written this article yet because my brain has been chewing its cud here for some time. It’s not hyperbole to say this is the single most important concept guiding my analytics research and the way I think about the game. It is addressed with the briefest of kisses in the Giroud article, but it’s a topic you can write a book on and someone, at some point, almost assuredly will.

As the title indicates, everything in football comes down to actions, and how successful you are at completing those actions. In short, percentages. We never think about it this way, but just by playing football, you are inevitably throwing yourself into the hands of the probability gods, and the only way to push them to guarantee your favour is to create better percentages.

Confused? Don’t be… there are examples bloody everywhere.

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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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Why Are German Clubs So Damned Good At Shooting?

There’s a stat I’ve looked at before that I’ve dubbed SoTPAR which stands for Shots on Target versus Par. You can find my original article about it from January here. Anyway, I started doing research today to revisit it now that the season is done. I’ll have a much larger article or two on its use and implications in the coming days, but for the moment I wanted to make a quick post on what’s happening in the Bundesliga right now.

This is the sort for the English Premier League. Delta is how many more shots on target each team averages above the 3 year average for their leagues. As you can see, Manchester United are really good at putting shots on target, while QPR were truly dreadful (and were last season too).  Anyway, the EPL 3-year average for this was 32.5%, so that’s how I calculated the expected.

EPL_2013_SOTPAR

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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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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.