Category: EPL

Form in soccer: not always a winning formula

By Brandon Tan

One of the most discussed statistics in soccer leading up to a match is “league form”: the results of the team’s last six games. We see this statistic referenced again and again by commentators and pundits in their match previews and analyses. The phenomenon is all over the websites of sports news outlets, such as here in the Guardian.

manchester-united.jpg

However, is form a statistic that we should care about? Does being “in-form” really predict match outcomes?

To answer this question, I test whether there is a significant correlation between the match outcome and league form. I compiled the fixture results from the English Premier League seasons 2010-11 to 2015-16 for each club and ran a simple linear regression with points earned (Win- 3 points, Draw- 1 point, Loss- 0 points) as the response variable and form (the average points earned over the last six matches) as the explanatory variable controlling for home advantage and the end-of-season rank of the opposing team (see Figure 1).

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Figure 1: The (lack of) relationship between form and points in English Premier League soccer

What I found was that there is no statistically significant correlation (at 5% significance) between points earned and form for any club. For instance, consider the results below from running the regression on Manchester United’s fixtures (see Figure 2). Home advantage and rank are clearly significant with p-values close to zero, while form isn’t even close with a p-value of 0.837, way above the 5% significance necessary to suggest a legitimate prediction model.

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Figure 2: Regression model summary in which factors form, rank, and home-field advantage predict points in English Premier League soccer

Someone might argue that 6-game form is considering too many games, so I tried running the regression on form defined as the average points earned from the last 3 games instead. Again, I found no statistically significant correlations, with the p-value from running the regression on Manchester United fixtures at 0.494.

This analysis suggests that as soccer fans we really need to stop making such a big deal out of form, because it really doesn’t tell us anything at all.

Appendix:

Team p-value from regression (form = average points earned from last 6 games)
Man United 0.837
Liverpool 0.094
Chelsea 0.103
Tottenham 0.945
Arsenal 0.476
Man City 0.903

 

 

How Good Are Southampton?

by Tom Pham

Southampton v Swansea City - Premier League

After his £12.5m ($19.9m) signing with Southampton during the summer, Kenyan midfielder Victor Wanyama claimed that he “believes one day Champions League football is achievable at Southampton.” Most fans knew that the midfielder was just simply trying to encourage his teammates and fans; none of us expected Southampton to actually challenge for a Champions League spot, especially considering they were struggling in League One in 2010-11 and were 18th in the Premier League last November. However, as the saying goes, we should only judge a team after ten games, and Southampton are passing that test with flying colours. Southampton are sitting comfortably in fifth, with 19 points, only six behind league leaders Arsenal, and one behind second-placed Chelsea. They are tied with Tottenham and Everton and are 2 points above champions Manchester United.

Southampton’s league form has been nothing to scoff at, gaining a convincing win at Anfield against Liverpool on a Dejan Lovren header, a credible draw against Manchester United at Old Trafford and a string of clean sheets and solid defensive performances, the only recent error being Asmir Begovic’s freak goal at the Britannia Stadium, only the fifth goalkeeper to ever score in the Premier League. St. Mary’s has become one of the most intimidating places for away teams to travel to, where the Saints have only conceded one goal this season in five games. This begs us a simple question, what has propelled Southampton to such an impressive start to the season?

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Coutinho: Liverpool’s new star

by Tom Pham

After Liverpool’s lackluster display against Southampton, many people were disappointed with the lack of creativity and flair in the Liverpool midfield, calling out for new signings and the departure of Jordan Henderson and Lucas Leiva. These fans were desperate for the return of Luis Suarez, hoping that his partnership with Daniel Sturridge will propel Liverpool into better form and an eventual Champions League spot at the end of the season. However, it is not Luis Suarez that is the vital cog within the Liverpool attack, it is their tricky Brazilian wonderkid Coutinho who will do so.

Signed from Inter Milan in January 2013 for a measly fee of £8.5m ($13.8m) after a disappointing spell where he could not live up to his potential, Coutinho has found a home at Anfield. Ever since his debut at Liverpool, he has instantly become a fan favorite with his mazy dribbling skills and sublime passing ability. Anyone who has watched Coutinho play knows that he is capable of threading a pass through the smallest of openings and capable of creating chances out of nowhere. As the cliché goes, Coutinho is capable of splitting a defense open like a hot knife through butter. It is a skill that Liverpool fans have missed dearly ever since the departure of Spanish star Xabi Alonso.

Coutinho has proven to be a revelation and a bargain. Before being sidelined for almost two months by a nasty shoulder injury due to a clash with Ashley Williams, Coutinho has been the driving force behind Liverpool’s improving attack. In only 923 minutes of Premier League football in the 2012/13 season since his debut in February against West Brom, Coutinho already has three goals and seven assists; he was directly involved in a goal once every 92 minutes, so basically once a game. A more recent example of the importance of Coutinho was in the Swansea game where he was taken off in the 55th  minutes. Liverpool completed 48 successful passes in the final third in the first half, and only managed a measly four after the break.

We can take a look at Coutinho’s numbers in comparison to other midfielders in the Premier League last season just to measure the true impact of Coutinho. First we take a look at Santiago Cazorla, Arsenal’s diminutive Spaniard. In 3301 minutes of Premier League football, he was directly involved in 25 goals, averaging one involvement every 132 minutes. Or Juan Mata perhaps, one of the best players in the Premier League last season. He was involved in 29 goals in just 2729 minutes, however, he was still not as impactful as Coutinho, his involvement was only once per 94 minutes. Another Spaniard whose creativity has been praised is David Silva, yet his involvement was far worse than that of Coutinho. He was involved in only 16 goals last season in 2511 minutes of football, averaging an assist or goal once every 157 minutes. In comparison to the other top attacking midfielders in the Premier League last season, albeit in a smaller sample size, Coutinho has proven to be an elite attacking midfielder who was directly involved in goals and assists at a higher rate than any other elite attacking midfielder.

Coutinho’s impact at Liverpool measured statistically has been leaps and bounds over any other player in the team, and Liverpool can only hope that his injury is not too severe. The return of Coutinho, combined with the form that both Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge are in, is a very promising sign for Liverpool this season.

Stats from:

http://fantasy.premierleague.com/stats/elements/?element_filter=te_9&stat_filter=total_points

http://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/0/football/24119215

Arsenal v. Napoli: Analysing the New Midfield at the Emirates

by Karthik Sastry

Arsenal celebrating Ozil’s goal

When asked about the last time he had seen his Arsenal side as well as they did in last Tuesday’s comfortable 2-0 victory over an on-form Napoli, manager Arsene Wenger could only draw a comparison with his club’s dramatic 2-1 triumph over Barcelona at the Emirates in February 2011. Tactically, the parallel is interesting. At that time the undisputed conductor of the Gunners’ attack was the now-departed Cesc Fabregas, who excelled at finding small openings in the middle of the pitch. Wenger selected his team to suit this centrally-focused approach; by the end of 90 minutes, he was playing in front of the talismanic Spaniard three forwards (Andrey Arshavin, Robin van Persie, Nicklas Bendtner) all most comfortable playing through the middle. Unfortunately, the strategy had an obvious counter, successfully implemented by opposition large and small: to defend narrow and deep before attacking wide areas quickly on the break.

On first glance, Wenger’s team-sheet for the European clash suggested a return to the old “pack-the-middle” mentality, with central midfielders (Mikel Arteta, Matthieu Flamini, Tomas Rosicky, Mesut Ozil, Aaron Ramsey) substituting for central strikers. But the game itself developed rather differently. Arsenal did play controlled, passing football, but the goals came from incisive and quick moves on the flank.

The outcome was not a turn of fortune, but rather a testament to the flexible movement of Wenger’s attackers. Instrumental in this regard was new addition Mesut Ozil. The German playmaker knows quite a bit about managing constriction in the middle of the pitch—at Real Madrid, he was most often flanked by Cristiano Ronaldo and Angel Di Maria, both of whom like to cut in on their preferred foot. Ozil would respond to the wingers’ movement by drifting to the vacated flanks to provide another outlet and, in many cases, drag holding midfielders woefully out of position.

Ozil’s Heat Map (goal on the right): Ozil did a lot of his work on the right

That experience rotating to the flank was on full display Tuesday night at the Emirates. Early in the match it became clear that Napoli’s defense weakness would be on their left, where full-back Juan Zuniga seemed out of sorts and young forward Lorenzo Insigne unwilling to offer assistance.  Ozil repeatedly slipped away from Napoli’s midfield anchors Valon Behrami and Gokhan Inler to overload that side of the pitch; 48 of the 79 balls he received were in the right third of the pitch. He stayed on the flank, too—one might be fooled looking at a heat map of Ozil’s location when he attempted each of 75 passes into thinking he started as a right winger.

Ozil’s passes received, with the ball setting up his volleyed goal in yellow

Ozil’s passes received, with the ball setting up his volleyed goal in yellow

The effort would have been in vain, though, if not for the thoughtful adjustments of teammate Aaron Ramsey. The Welshman, more accustomed to playing in the middle but on the day fielded on the wing, tended to tuck into a central-deep position during slower phases of the game when Ozil moved outward. The rotation was not quite the same as that of 2012-2013 Madrid (with Ronaldo and Di Maria moving into the box) or the old, Fabregas-based Arsenal (with wingers crowding the edge) but the overall effect worked well—the overloads in the first half caught Napoli off-guard for each of the two goals and the additional control afforded by Ramsey’s inward movement allowed Arsenal to see out the second half comfortably.

Ramsey’s Heat Map (goal on the right), Ramsey displayed lots of flexibility and movement

Ramsey’s Heat Map (goal on the right), Ramsey displayed lots of flexibility and movement

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An unexpected dilemma

Looking forward, the success of this starting XI offers an interesting, though perhaps welcome, selection headache for Wenger. Ramsey is currently on too good form to drop, and his strong interplay with Ozil suggests the flank may be his best place at the moment. Incisive passer Santi Cazorla, due back this week, could easily substitute directly for Tomas Rosicky to complete a rather creative troika behind the main striker. Much like Ozil, Cazorla likes to drift into wide areas when playing centrally and vice-versa when on the flank (most notably during his spell playing on the left of a 4-2-2-2 at Villareal). If he coordinates his movement well with the German, their partnership could be very strong.

The losers in this arrangement might be Theo Walcott and Lukas Podolski, both of whom enjoyed a great amount of minutes in the previous season. For tricky away fixtures or as a solid “plan B” at the Emirates, their more direct style might be a necessary balance to the playmakers’ deliberate build-up. But if the short-passing machine can run so smoothly against top-tier opposition, both wingers might find themselves without a starting place in what is shaping up to be, at least in the early stages, the most refined attack fielded by Arsenal since their Premier League triumph in 2003-04.

https://i1.wp.com/d3j5vwomefv46c.cloudfront.net/photos/large/812409065.gif

Ozil’s calm side-footed shot into the net

[Data was taken from FourFourTwo’s StatZone app, which is a front-end for Opta positional data.]

Ooooh, Robin Van Persie!

by Satyajeet Pal

For Arsenal fans, each sight of Robin van Persie scoring a goal is a reminder of the talent Arsene Wenger let slip away last summer. Yet for Manchester United fans, there has been no better spectacle than watching the Flying Dutchman play this season right where he left off.

He has been short of nothing but spectacular for the Red Devils through the first half of the season and has been worth every penny of his ₤24 million ($38.7 million) transfer free from the Gunners plus his ₤250,000-a-week wages. Let’s take a look at exactly what RvP has meant for Manchester United this season:

 Van Persie has been exactly the striker Sir Alex Ferguson hoped he would be, continuing his goal scoring streak from last season. So far this season, van Persie has scored 27 goals in 36 combined Premier League and Champions League appearances (24 from 31, and 3 from 5, respectively), for a whopping average of 0.75 goals per appearance. This is down from a season-high of 0.78 goals per appearance through mid-January following a spell of a few goalless games in March.

 For comparison, last season at Arsenal he had 37 goals in 48 appearances and 30 goals from 38 appearances in the Premier League. Last year, in all competitions, the forward had an average of 0.77 goals per appearance. Both these figures represent a sizeable jump from his career average of 0.46 goals per appearance (including the most recent two years of his career).

 Even after receiving his huge contract from Manchester United, van Persie’s performance (at least in terms of goals) has not seemed to dropped off at all. In fact, he seems to have become an even more prolific scorer after his move to United. What’s impressive about his goal scoring tally this year is that it hasn’t dropped off despite the talent that surrounds him. In his last season at Arsenal, van Persie scored 39.4% of his side’s goals and Theo Walcott was the next leading scorer with 11 goals. This season he is scoring 34.6% of his team’s goals; Wayne Rooney is the second leading scorer with 13 and Chicharito with 11. No matter who is around him, RvP seems to be getting his chances and very often converting them.

 It’s hard to argue that van Persie doesn’t deserve the PFA player of the year again after his stellar season last year. Luis Suarez and Gareth Bale are in the discussion but van Persie has maintained his high level after switching teams last summer and has led Manchester United to the Premier League title this season. He has slotted in well with all the playmakers around him, Rooney, Kagawa, Carrick, and Valencia, producing the goals (often game-winning) for his team. The Red Devils will look to continue their dominance this weekend as they take on Robin van Persie’s old club, Arsenal.

 Data from whoscored.com

What Now, Newcastle?

By Raghav Gandotra

Ba Bye! No Loic either!

During the Arsenal-Newcastle game, commentator Andy Gray remarked “What would they do without him?” reacting to Demba Ba’s second goal to bring Newcastle on level terms with Arsenal for the third time in the game. The answer to this question must be found by Newcastle manager Alan Pardew and soon, for a Ba-less Newcastle has unfortunately become the grim reality for everyone at St. James’ Park with Ba’s departure to Chelsea on a three and a half-year deal. Ba’s contribution to Newcastle was monumental; he scored 13 out of the 27 goals they have scored in the Premiership. Fellow strikers Papiss Cisse and Shola Ameobi have been inconsistent with a combined tally of 5 goals this season and with Newcastle currently languishing in 16th place, there could not have been a worse time for Ba’s departure. Alan Pardew must look for reinforcements. Even with prime target Loic Remy being snapped up by some late in the day wizardry by QPR manager Harry Redknapp, Newcastle cannot say they are out of options. We explore some of these:

Modibo Maiga:

Modibo

This out of favor West Ham United forward would be ideal for Pardew to replenish his squad. He is fast off the ball, excellent with the ball at his feet and is also a substantial aerial presence standing tall at 6ft 2inches. He is also not afraid to try unconventional methods to get the ball into the net with some spectacular bicycle kicks during his time with Sochaux. Though his innate talent and commitment cannot be questioned, he is yet to find his feet in English football having been largely unimpressive during his short spell with Newcastle scoring 2 goals in 14 appearances. He will cost something in the region of £6.5 million.

 

 

Wilfried Bony:

Bony

This beast from Eredivisie Club Vitesse Arnhem possesses all the characteristics Pardew is looking for in a striker and more. He is powerful in the air and what he lacks in raw pace he makes up with fantastic dribbling ability. Coupled with this, a fantastic right foot and an uncanny knack of scoring late goals makes him the ideal man for Pardew to have at St. James’ Park. His 16 goals this season at a rate of 0.89 goals per game has made him an integral part of the current Vitesse side. With Newcastle getting something in the vicinity of £7.5 million from Ba’s departure, they do possess the financial resources to go after Bony who is valued around the £7 million mark.

Peter Odemwingie:

OdemwingieOdemwingie has been a special player for West Bromwich Albion, holding the record for scoring the most goals (15) in a season as a West Brom player(2010-11). Yet the fickle nature of Premiership soccer finds him being pushed down the pecking order at the Hawthorns with some noteworthy performances by powerful striker Romelu Lukaku who has come here on a season loan. There is no doubt though, that he still possesses the speed, killer instinct and excellent first touch which made him such a potent threat in the first place. At the age of 31, Odemwingie cannot expect to play many more years in the top flight of soccer and would be looking to get as much playing time as possible. With Lukaku’s future at West Brom uncertain, Steve Clarke will not want to be too hasty in agreeing to a permanent deal for Odemwingie. A loan deal should be acceptable for both parties, though maybe not for the player.