Preview 2012-13: Arsenal

Arsenal's summer transfer windows in 2011 and 2012 are a study in contrasts. In 2011, Arsenal were paralyzed as manager Arsene Wenger's stubbornness seemed to preclude the club from conducting their necessary business. The negotiations for the sales of Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri carried on for several weeks and likely interfered with the club's preparations for the upcoming season. Wenger seemed reluctant to close deals on quality players early in the window (e.g., Juan Mata). Only in the aftermath of a devastating 8-2 defeat to Manchester United on August 28, 2011 (the first time Arsenal had conceded 8 goals since 1896) did Wenger seem aware of how desperate the club's circumstances actually were. With only three days remaining before the close of the transfer window on September 1, he completed deals to bring in Mikel Arteta, Per Mertesacker, Andre Santos, Park Chu-Young, and Yossi Benayoun (on loan). While some of these additions proved quite useful to the club, Wenger only acted at the end of an abysmal month in which Arsenal somehow incurred 3 red cards and captured a single point out of a possible 9.

If the summer of 2011 demonstrated Wenger's deficiencies in the transfer market, the summer of 2012 has reminded observers of his primary strength: identifying and purchasing undervalued talent. Unlike 2011 when Wenger procrastinated buying replacements for wantaways Fabregas and Nasri, Wenger quickly moved to bring in replacements for Robin van Persie, the malcontent striker with only one year remaining on his contract. Far in advance of van Persie's public declaration that he would not be extending his contract with the club, Wenger had already negotiated the purchase of Olivier Giroud who scored 21 goals in France's Ligue 1 (joint top scorer) and Lukas Podolski who scored 18 goals in Germany's Bundesliga (joint 4th leading scorer). Remarkably, Wenger purchased Giroud and Podolski for £13m and £11m, respectively. In the current transfer market, these fees are paltry for players of their caliber of talent. Giroud and Podolski are not Wenger's only marquee purchases on the cheap, however. Arsenal understood that the precarious financial situation of Malaga in Spain's La Liga presented an opportunity. Malaga were (and probably still are) desperate for cash and fast, as several players filed complaints that they are owed back wages (among other debts owed). Arsenal, with plenty of cash on hand, may have negotiated a discounted fee for Santi Cazorla by paying most of it up-front to help alleviate Malaga's near-term financial woes. (In general, most transfer fees are paid over the course of a period of years rather than up-front.) The transfer fee for the highly creative midfielder is reportedly around £16m, which is a great bargain for a player of Cazorla's quality.

Wenger and the club certainly deserve plaudits for their activity in the transfer market thus far. Even so, more questions remain than have been answered by Arsenal's transfer activity. If van Persie leaves, which admittedly seems modestly less likely with each passing day, Arsenal lose 40 percent of their league goals from last season. Can the new additions compensate for this dearth of goals? Maybe but it's a big maybe. Adjusting to the Premier League can take time, and Giroud and Podolski are good players, but they are not of van Persie's quality.

Even more problematic for Arsenal, the back four are not improved from last season. Center back Laurent Koscielny had a fantastic season in 2011-12; can he maintain that level of play? Center back Thomas Vermaelen's positioning was very poor last season. Can he improve and play at the level that people expect him to play? While Per Mertesacker is an adequate backup at center back, if he is required to play regularly, as was the case last season, opponents will likely easily exploit his lack of pace. (As an aside, for someone as tall as Mertesacker is, he is incredibly weak in the air.) Left back Kieran Gibbs is a promising young player, but he seems prone to nagging injuries. He missed nearly 4 months of last season due to a hernia and related complications. Reserve left back Andre Santos is dangerous going forward, but he lacks the sort of defensive capabilities that are generally considered requisite to be, errr, a defender. Most worrisome for the club, right back Bacary Sagna will be out for the beginning portion of the season as he recovers from a broken leg suffered at the end of last season. I think his return in February of last season was incredibly important to Arsenal's resurgence in which they took 27 out of 30 possible points between February 4 and April 11. In my view, Arsenal are a substantially better team, both in attack and defense, with Sagna out on the field. Until Sagna is healthy, I believe that Arsenal are better off playing Francis Coquelin out of position at right back over Sagna's understudy at right back, Carl Jenkinson. Even though Coquelin is an improvement over Jenkinson, he is still a huge drop off in quality from Sagna.

In sum, Arsenal have made three very astute purchases in Giroud, Podolski, and Cazorla. They are in a better position leading up to the season than most fans would have anticipated after van Persie announced his intention to leave the club. Even so, whether Arsenal's attacking players can maintain the potency of their scoring threat in the absence of van Persie (should he leave), and whether the defense can improve from last season are questions to which the answers are far from clear.

Further Reading:

Brief thoughts on Liverpool FC's reaction to Suárez

A lot has been written on the Luis Suárez controversy, so I don't think there is much to add to the conversation. Even so, I'm going to go ahead and do so. I have heard some analysts and commentators ask whether Kenny Dalglish has done harm to his legacy by returning to Liverpool and leading them to mediocrity. I don't think that he has harmed his legacy as a result of the club's underwhelming performance, but he has done severe, perhaps irreperable, harm to his reputation through his unequivocal, visceral support of Suárez. Fans of the Premier League have expressed shock that Suárez refused Patrice Evra's hand. I am not in the slightest. Dalglish and LFC had the gall to declare that Suárez was in fact the victim of slander perpetrated by an agent of their chief rival, Manchester United. Dalglish and LFC continued propagating this characterization even after the FA released a report documenting that Suárez admitted to calling Evra "negro." Why should Suárez not act like the victim if his club and manager have told him and declared to the rest of the world that he is? It's appalling to me that it has taken Fenway Sports Group this long to react to behavior that has been, without argument, incredibly damaging to LFC's reputation and, thus, the club's brand. The decision makers at Liverpool seemed to have made the poorest of judgments. Suárez is a football player; he is a good one, but nevertheless, he is still only a football player. And, no single player is bigger than his club, especially a club as steeped in tradition and pride as Liverpool Football Club. Shame on Kenny Dalglish, shame on Fenway Sports Group, and shame on Liverpool Football Club.

Interpreting the net passing statistic

I use a statistic that I refer to as "net passing" quite often in my analysis on this blog. Net passing is simply the number of passes completed by a team net of the number of passes completed by their opponent. The purpose of such a statistic is to provide a simple description of one aspect of the game: passing. Depending on a team's style of play and tactical approach, net passing may or may not be predictive of actual match outcomes. For example, some teams depend on possession and passing to break down an opposing team's defense. On the other hand, some teams play deeper and generate scoring opportunities on the counter attack. Playing on the counter attack requires much fewer passes, and consequently, net passing is probably not very predictive of performance for these teams. The figures below show the average points per game for each of the big six clubs by the level of net passing (as of game week 23).

(Click on figures to enlarge)

The light blue bars in the figures above indicate that the points per game statistic is based on only one or two games. As a result of such a small sample, these statistics are not very reliable. Manchester City have a high points per game irrespective of their net passing. Somewhat surprisingly, they have not dropped any points in games in which their opponents have out-passed them, and they have collected the fewest points per game from games in which they completed at least 301 more passes than opposing teams. Manchester United have collected on average only 1.33 points per game from those in which they were out-passed, while they have been markedly more effective in games in which they have a positive value for net passing. Remarkably, they have out-passed opponents by a margin greater than 200 passes on only two occasions. Tottenham also have a much higher points per game when they out-pass opponents, and the pattern appears more pronounced than that of Manchester United. Chelsea have averaged a respectable 1.6 points per game in games in which they were out-passed or completed 100 or fewer passes more than opposing teams. The incredibly low 0.25 points per game for the net passing category of 101-200 serves as an important reminder that statistics can yield strange results, especially when estimated from small sample sizes. Net passing seems to be quite predictive of Arsenal's performance, which is perhaps not surprising given Arsenal's style of play. Finally, there is little variation in points per game across net passing levels for Liverpool (ignoring the >300 category, which is based on only two games).

Evaluating recent team form in the English Premier League

We often hear from soccer pundits that Premier League titles and Champions League positions are won in the winter months when top sides grind out ugly results on pitches badly worn from harsh winter weather. Mathematically, of course, every game is worth 3 points and early fixtures therefore have as much influence on who wins a title as mid season ones. However, I understand the sentiment of these pundits; what they are really saying is Premier League titles are won through consistent results throughout the season. With games coming thick and fast during the mid season fixture list, teams often experience a dip in form due to injuries and players needing rests. Typically it is the teams that are able to avoid a dip in form during the winter months that emerge as title winners and Champions League qualifiers (perhaps it would be more accurate to say titles are lost in the winter months).

The table above ranks teams according to form in their last ten league games going back to early December in order to examine which sides have remained consistent or improved on their early season form and which have experienced a dip in form. Form is defined as points per game. Manchester United top this table with 2.4 points per game from their last 10 fixtures. They have proved to be consistent in their results throughout the season with a difference of only 0.09 between points per game in their last 10 games and their first 13. Though Manchester City sit second on this table with 1.9 points per game from their last 10, they have shown the greatest dip in form from their first 13 games gaining 0.79 fewer points per game than they had early in the season. Many questioned early this season whether City would be able to cope with the marathon Premier League season and be consistent enough to win the title. The table above suggests that they cannot and that we may see United lifting the trophy yet again come early May.

Sunderland's revival under Martin O'Neill is evidenced in the table. The Black Cats have had the biggest improvement in form of all 20 clubs collecting 1.9 points per game in their last 10 compared to just 0.85 in their first 13. Interestingly, the four sides competing for the fourth Champions League spot, Chelsea, Liverpool, Arsenal and Newcastle, have all experienced a dip in form in the last 10 games. None seem interested in taking advantage of points dropped by the other three.

A comparison of Arsenal's 2010-2011 BPL season with the current season

Arsenal had a perfectly fine 2010-2011 season, but it was certainly nothing more. Based on a small set of performance metrics, Arsenal's performance, unsurprisingly, has declined since last year's quite average season.

Arsenal have collected on average 1.61 points per game in the Premier League compared to 1.79 last season. While 0.18 points per game might not seem like a large difference, it equates to almost a 7 point difference in a 38 game season. Furthermore, with Manchester United, City, and Tottenham, at the top of the league, Arsenal are vying with Chelsea, Liverpool, and Newcastle to secure a much coveted finish in the top 4 in order to qualify for the Champions League. Compared to last season, Arsenal have scored fewer goals and conceded more goals per game, which has resulted in a per game goal difference of 0.26 this season in comparison to 0.76 last season. Finally, Arsenal are not out-passing opponents as much as they did last season. On average, Arsenal have completed about 154 more passes than their opponent this season, while they completed about 188 more passes on average last season. In fact, opposing teams have completed more passes than Arsenal in 6 of the 23 games played (26.1 percent). In all 38 games last season, opponents were able to out-pass Arsenal on only 3 occasions (7.9 percent).

Liverpool's British signings fail to justify transfer cost

Liverpool have spent somewhere in the neighborhood of £78.5 million in transfer fees on English players Andy Carroll, Stewart Downing, and Jordan Henderson and Scotsman Charlie Adam since the 2011 January transfer window. Carroll was brought in last January while Adam, Downing, and Henderson were all purchased over the summer. The table above looks at their respective transfer fees and offensive output after 22 games in the 2011-2012 Barclays Premier League season.

Liverpool currently sit 7th in the table. They have scored just 25 goals, 8th fewest in the league. Seeing as Carroll is a center forward and Adam, Downing, and Henderson are all fairly attack-minded midfielders, it’s safe to assume these four players were purchased for their ability to score and create goals. That Liverpool have struggled so heavily to do so must be frustrating to fans given the amount of cash they’ve splashed to improve their attack. Carroll, Downing, Henderson, and Adam have 71 league appearances between them this season (out of a possible 88). They have managed to score only 5 goals and generated just 6 assists. None have more than 2 goals. Adam, whose £7.5 million transfer fee makes him the cheapest of the four, has been the most productive with 2 goals and 4 assists, contributing to slightly less than a quarter of Liverpool’s goals (contribution to goals being defined as either scoring directly or assisting a goal). Stewart Downing has yet to register a goal or an assist despite playing in all but three of Liverpool’s league games. Carroll, with his £35 million transfer fee, has netted just twice and contributed to 12 percent of Liverpool’s goals. Henderson has just one goal and one assist. To determine the exact number of Liverpool goals the four have contributed to we’d have to figure out the goal scorers on each of their six total assists to avoid double counting. For instance, if Charlie Adam assisted one of Andy Carroll’s goals this would count as contribution to one total Liverpool goal and not two. If any of their six assists were to one of the other three players, than the four have contributed to fewer than 11 Liverpool goals. For the sake of this article, we’ll leave that data out. I think we can safely conclude that £78.5million is far too high a price for five goals and six assists.[1]

[1] Cristiano Ronaldo, whose £80 million transfer fee just exceeds the combined total Liverpool paid for Henderson, Adam, Carroll, and Downing, has already produced 21 goals and 6 assists in just 19 league games.