Monday, October 21, 2013

Premier League Points Segmentation

While much has been made of Arsenal's good start of the season so far; they lead the table by 2 points after 8 (yes just 8) games, there have been certain unique circumstances that have resulted in this position. Michael Cox has pointed out certain statistical quirks and interesting anomalies here which demonstrate that Arsenal's position at the top of the table might just be false or misleading. Not only that, the fixture list has ensured that Arsenal have played mostly teams in the bottom half of the table and have had a relatively easy start to the campaign. While Manchester Utd (admittedly struggling in David Moyes' first season) have already played against Liverpool, Chelsea and Manchester City, Arsenal have only faced Spurs at home so far and hence it is too early to say whether Arsenal will be able to replicate their early season good form against the better teams.

And this brought me to look at how Arsenal and indeed the other top teams in the Premiership have done against different types of teams. For this (rather rudimentary) analysis, I picked five teams to focus on - Manchester United (Utd), Manchester City (City), Chelsea, Tottenham Hotspurs (Spurs) and Arsenal. These five teams have all finished within the top six over the last three years; Utd winning the title twice in that period and City once. I classified the teams in each season into three categories based on their finishing position in the league for that season: Top 6, Mid Table (Positions 7 to 12) and Bottom of the League (Positions 13 to 20). The Top 6 essentially covers all matches between the 5 sides plus one additional who made it into this bracket (Everton, Newcastle Utd and Liverpool - have all been once in the top 6 over the last three years). So do we get any interesting patterns from this data shown below ?
Note: Cells in Green indicates best in class for that category and season combination. Cells in Red indicate worst in class for that category and season combination.

1) Each of the teams winning the league over the last two seasons has been the best in 2 out of the 3 segments. Utd (2010-11) were best in class in Top 6 clashes and Mid-table. City (2011-12) were best in class in matches against the Top 6 and Bottom of the league. Utd (2012-13) were best in class against both the mid table teams and the Bottom of the league. In fact Utd were perfect (48 points out of 48) when playing against the bottom 8 last season.
2) Each of the 3 squads winning the league over the last season were the best in class that year when it came to playing against the bottom 8. Essentially the team that was the best minnow basher won the league. And this gives me some hope for Arsenal - if the current squad continues to be clinical against weaker teams they should be in with a shout.
3) So what can each of the individual teams do to improve or maintain their good performances: Quick thoughts:

a) Utd: Continue being the best minnow bashers in the league. 
b) City: Can improve on their output against the Bottom half of the table. Keep winning the top of the table clashes.
c) Chelsea: Have struggled against mid-table teams. Mourinho should be able to sort of their complacency (?) against these teams.
d) Arsenal: Very poor against the top teams. Grab a few more points against the big boys and continue to remain clinical against the weaker teams.
e) Spurs: They appear to be a good team against mid-table teams but struggle against teams from either end of the table. Can surely be better minnow bashers now with so much more quality inducted into the squads. 

That's it for now - will add more commentary and perhaps data into this stratification. Would love to hear your thoughts too.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

The Architect

For someone, who has never been a fan of the Azzurri, Andrea Pirlo has been a bit of a secret love. I have not so much seen him play, but imagined him play more. I have often only seen him in action on the TV playing for Italy in the major international tournaments and his performances have most often been stellar - a Man of the Match in 2006 World Cup Final being probably the highest point. But really for me (given I am not really interested in seeing Italy win), it is the aesthetic pleasure that his game brings, that has always been precious. 
There are many types of great players and they appear to use pace in different forms. There are those that play at a very fast pace, often acceleration is one of their key weapons - think Henry, Ronaldo (both of them), Messi... Then there are those that make the game stop - everything appears to slow down, just for an instant, as an incredible piece of skill or control is imparted - think Zidane or Bergkamp.... Pirlo himself seems to bring the game to his own, languid, elegant pace, a pace which gives the viewer just enough time to think about what is about to happen next.
The good part though for you dear reader, is that Pirlo often brings out the best in football writers as well and over time, some of these pieces of writing have struck with me. So here are a few pieces of writing, of art, which try to describe the game of a player who raises football to an art form himself. 

Brian Philips on The Run of Play writing about how highlight reels cannot do justice to Pirlo's game.  

Andrea Pirlo might be the only player in football whose presence negates the idea of the highlight clip. He’s so subtle, so finely tuned, that he seems to become more invisible the more brilliantly he plays, as though football for him were the equivalent of keeping a secret. He moves through the match like the eye of the storm, like a center of low pressure, and is to the complex automation of other footballers like a machine with no moving parts. And his genius for remoteness is such that it turns a highlight reel into nothing more than another bit of noise for him to slip through. Pirlo makes glory look crude.To capture him, really to capture the way he plays, the camera would have to follow him without the ball, with the ball not even in the frame. It would have to show the way he drifts and watches, judges and glides, the way he moves as if movement were thinking. If would have to show the angles as the angles appeared to him, and to him alone of everyone watching the match. It would have to show openings three seconds, four seconds, before they opened. And then, perhaps, as he backed into a defender and slipped free, the ball could roll into the picture, and he could pause over it, hover for a beat, and make the astonishing pass while all eyes in the stadium were turned toward the run of the striker.The camera wouldn’t need to show the goal. By the time he made the pass, the goal would already have happened. It would just be a few more seconds before anyone else could see it.

But, while highlight clips cannot do full justice to Pirlo, they still can make us realise what an exceptional talent this man is. Here is Elliot describing this incredible golazo from Pirlo in 2010 ! 
So what should we make from Pirlo’s golazo?Well, at the emotional level, pure joy. He struck his shot like a pre-divorce Tiger Woods’ swing. While some players run to a game’s external rhythm and accelerate at key moments, Pirlo has always reminded me of a staccato laden soloist. In his heyday, Andrea worked the ball out of the back with aplomb, zipping around his own box and completing five yard passes until opposing forwards capitulated. But in the opposing end, his passes often fooled cameramen and caught the eye off guard. While some may confuse a slide rule pass for cunning, Pirlo’s use of eyes, head, and hips to wrongfoot an entire defensive back line (and fool a few of his own teammates) always took my breath away.

The story of Andrea Pirlo is one of the most fascinating of the last two decades in international football and if you, like me, trust Michael Cox, you may agree with the conclusion that he draws here of Pirlo:  Is he best player of his generation? Not quite, but he is the most important

The last link is a engrossing read as we learn about how Pirlo started off more as a number 10, how he had to move back in the Brescia team which contained the veteran legend Roberto Baggio in the same team, how he was influenced by Pep Guardiola, the mutual admiration between these two midfield maestros, the irony of how Guardiola replaced Pirlo in the Brescia team....

Pirlo is famous for his freekicks (penalty kicks as wells) and this beautiful article tells us about how he worked on his technique following the lead of the legendary Juninho of Lyon.
 "I feel a little Brazilian" he revealed in his autobiography Penso Quindi Gioco [I Think Therefore I Play] even referring to himself as Pirlinho. "When I take free-kicks I think in Portuguese, then at most I celebrate in Italian."He spends an entire chapter of his book discussing the inspiration behind them, namely the former Lyon playmaker Juninho Pernambucano, who is compared just as he so often is to the conductor of an orchestra only "with the baton between his feet," a player who, Pirlo jokes, "makes an 'OK' gesture with the big toe, not with the thumb."Completely fascinated by Juninho's ability to "invent extraordinary trajectories" and how he scored so many free-kicks, Pirlo felt compelled to learn how to do it himself. It enthralled him. "I collected CDs, DVDs even old photos of his games and eventually I came to understand. It wasn't an immediate discovery. It took time and patience."
Pirlo's less talked about defensive side of the game is no less effective, and here in this article titled  "The Humanity of the Defensive Midfielder on IBWM", the author in the below paragraphs writes about Pirlo and another contemporary great midfielder Xabi Alonso :
 He (Xabi Alonso), along with the great Andrea Pirlo, is the epitome of the concept of the deep-lying playmaker: a stoic yet vital piece of an organic machine, giving direction and control to the boat lain before it. They can tackle (Pirlo is especially underrated defensively), but are most exceptional at turning defense to attack in an instant, starting counterattacks with incisive long-range passes from a place that allows them to follow the play and offer themselves as an outlet for under-pressure attackers up ahead.To be sure, there are other talented players out there who fulfill this particular role. But Pirlo and Alonso share a particularly unfazed demeanor that makes it easy to imagine one of them in a captain's hat, chinos, and boat shoes (red socks), silently steering a lifeboat through the night. They make their passengers feel relaxed enough to enjoy a cup of hot cocoa while swaddled beneath wool blankets to protect against the chill of the icy waters. They are distinct because they offer more than a mere able hand. They offer imagination, warmth, and incisive passing without sacrificing defensive prowess or positioning. More than anything, they offer an aura: Look, I know I'm a badass. You know I'm a badass. 
The more one reads about Pirlo, the more one realises that he is part of a very select, rare group of beautiful, ball playing, creative central midfielders. And often the pieces involving Pirlo also talk about his contemporaries: Xavi, Xabi Alonso, Juninho, Paul Scholes, Juan Roman Riquelme. This piece (again from Michael Cox), written at the time of the Euros, before the Italy-Spain group match, celebrates the three amigos, Xavi, Xabi & Pirlo and the beauty of their game.
These three are the true greats: physically unremarkable yet outstandingly talented. Quiet off the pitch, yet leaders on it.All are now into their thirties, yet remain as influential as ever. This season, across Europe’s major five leagues, no player passed the ball as often as these three: Xavi did so 94 times per match, Pirlo 86 and Alonso 78.  It shows their constant impact upon games – they’re permanently available for a pass in the center of the pitch, never content to hide behind an opponent, always dropping deep, drifting sideways, anything to find a pocket of space and launch an attack.
For further insights (including perhaps learning about weaknesses in their games), read this from the same author writing this time about Xavi, Scholes and Pirlo
That is the fascinating thing about these players – they need a calm, patient feel to the game, or they can be completely overrun. The difference between the almost-great players of this mould (Carrick, Riccardo Montolivo, NĂ©stor Ortigoza) and Xavi, Pirlo and Scholes is that the former are forced to accept it is not their type of game, while the latter can actively create that type of game. That is extremely difficult against sides wanting to be powerful, energetic and chaotic – it is easier to hijack a meditation session and turn it into a rave than vice versa.
Finally, to end with another masterpiece, Jonathon Wilson pays a glowing tribute to Pirlo in this very recent piece of his. And as I mentioned earlier, the person getting compared with Pirlo is Riquelme, yet another amazing regista:
There is something rather beautiful about Andrea Pirlo—or at least the idea of Andrea Pirlo.He is, as Jorge Valdano once said of Juan Roman Riquelme, a player who preserves the spirit of another age. To watch Pirlo at his best is to see a game in sepia; to drift into a gorgeous nostalgia in which football was played without rush by debonair men who stroked the ball about.Like Riquelme, Pirlo seems an anachronism. He is not quick. He doesn’t charge about the pitch, and he is not one for conspicuous effort.His effectiveness, rather, lies in his intelligence, his ability to conceptualise the pitch in its entirety, to know where teammates and opponents are and where they will be, allied to a sumptuous ability to craft a pass.We call him old-fashioned because he doesn’t quite seem of our age, and we presume there must have been a time in which he fitted, but there never was such a time. Read match reports of the 1890s or the pioneering tactical columns in the SheffieldGreen'Un, and you’ll find just the same complaints about football’s emphasis on speed as you find today.But it’s nice to believe there was, and it’s a mark of Pirlo’s greatness that he can awake nostalgia for a golden age that never existed.
A great career is perhaps drawing slowly to a close as James Horncastle writes about his current predicament at Juventus. But for me - he will remain a quite unique and special player, that we were privileged to watch as Jonathon Wilson concludes: He’s 34 now and as his career perhaps at last is slowing to a halt, Pirlo remains an anachronism. Possibly, though, he is less a hangover of a golden past than a herald of things to come.

PS: For those of an artitistic inclination, this is Bonus Reading: Pirlo: The Art of the Fantasista

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