Spurs sacrifice shape in pursuit of fluidity

Back in early January I wrote an article on Tottenham discussing the change in their approach this season from last (https://nasher3230.wordpress.com/2012/01/15/wingers-take-central-role-in-tottenhams-title-challenge/). To summarise it seemed clear that Tottenham’s wingers, usually Gareth Bale and Aaron Lennon, were given license to roam across the pitch to help Rafael Van der Vaart support the lone striker Emmanuel Adebayor. However, since writing the article, Spurs have taken this strategy to the extreme and now look completely devoid of width, and in the North London Derby with Arsenal at the Emirates they turned a 2-goal lead into an embarrassing defeat through a lack of shape and positional discipline.

In the first half of the season the plan was extremely effective as opposing defences were faced with the duel threat of Tottenham’s wingers either attacking down the flanks and crossing or cutting inside to shoot. Both Bale and Lennon seemed to grow as players and provided more assists and goals. However, to emphasise the point, this was a case of specialist wingers given the freedom to occasionally move infield or switch flank.

Gareth Bale in particular has now seemingly adopted a central position that has ruined Tottenham’s shape and also nullifies many of Bale’s biggest attributes. Playing centrally neither Bale nor Lennon gets to use their pace as much as playing out wide (save for running on to the occasional through-ball such as the one Bale received from Luka Modric that earned Tottenham’s penalty against Arsenal). Both Bale and Lennon are also decent crossers of the ball but it is telling that Tottenham have not scored a headed goal in the league since September, despite having Adebayor to aim for in the box. Finally, when opposing teams crowd the central areas Bale and Lennon lack the ball skills to keep possession like Modric and Van der Vaart.

The worrying thing for Tottenham fans may be Bale’s attitude. Since becoming one of the team’s stars he increasingly seems intent on taking centre-stage, even at the expense of the team’s shape. Whether Harry Redknapp is encouraging this or whether this is simply a result of the winger’s ego is not certain.

To solely blame Bale for the Emirates debacle is unfair, and tactically Tottenham were awful. As already mentioned Bale won the penalty in the first half running between Arsenal’s centre-backs, despite starting wide on the left. This seemed to make his mind up and it is difficult to remember him running at Arsenal’s right-back Bacary Sagna again in the match. After half-time he drifted all over the pitch, at times dropping deep to collect the ball from the defence, but spent the majority of his time attacking the inside-right channel and running into Arsenal’s midfield. If Arsenal were concerned with how to neutralise Bale they needn’t have worried – Bale neutralised himself with his positioning.

Elsewhere, Tottenham’s midfield lacked any sort of balance. In the first half, Modric and Scott Parker sat very deep to watch Tomas Rosicky and Mikel Arteta, with Louis Saha dropping onto Alex Song. This largely removed Saha as an attacking threat, despite his opening goal. Modric and Parker’s positioning gave Arsenal lots of possession which allowed them to go in at half-time level.

At half-time Redknapp rejigged the midfield, bringing on Sandro and Rafael Van der Vaart. His wholesale changes were a surprise – Arsenal lined up exactly as they have done for the last few years, yet Redknapp was happy to completely scrap a pre-planned strategy that had initially put them 2 goals ahead. Sandro was supposed to provide extra midfield protection with Parker, and Van der Vaart was deployed wide right. Unsurprisingly Van der Vaart provided no width down the right, and with Bale attacking through the middle Tottenham became extremely narrow. Sandro and Parker both lacked the discipline as defensive midfielders, often leaving Modric as the deepest Tottenham midfielder by charging forward themselves, and Arsenal ran riot.

Ironically losing shape is usually Arsenal’s biggest fault. Theo Walcott is often criticised for not playing his wide-forward role effectively, and Alex Song is prone to charging forward from his holding midfield position leaving the defence horribly exposed. Arsene Wenger trusts his players to make the right decisions and refrains from giving them individual instructions, often to Arsenal’s detriment, but Redknapp will want to rethink his strategy and convey that to his team quickly.

In the last few weeks the individual qualities of Tottenham’s attacking players have often masked some disjointed team performances, although the tepid draw against League 1 Stevenage in the FA Cup demonstrated that they wouldn’t get away with it forever. If Harry Redknapp is looking to distance himself from the England job, then he is going the right way about it.

Dark days behind them at the Stadium of Light

Sunderland’s decision to sack manager Steve Bruce and appoint Martin O’Neill has dramatically changed their season. When O’Neill took charge of his first game against Blackburn on 11th December Sunderland found themselves in 17th position in the league with 11 points from 14 games. Following Saturday’s victory over Swansea the club sits in 10th place with 27 points, having accumulated 16 points from just 8 games under their new manager.

Under Bruce, Sunderland averaged just 0.79 points per game, scoring 1.14 and conceding 1.21 goals per game in the process. Under O’Neill the team has seen a huge improvement to an average of 2 points per game, scoring more (1.63) and conceding fewer (0.88). This record is all the more impressive given that O’Neill’s brief tenure has included away fixtures at Tottenham and Chelsea and a home game against league leaders Man City. Had Sunderland demonstrated this form from the beginning of the season they would be currently sitting in 4th place.

So how has O’Neill brought about this change in fortune?

Team Selection

Martin O’Neill has had the same squad at his disposal, and has largely used the same players and the same formation. The table below shows the players that have started in the league for Sunderland under both O’Neill and Steve Bruce. Ten players have started at least half of the games under both managers, with four starting at least 75%. However, two players in particular have been used much more frequently under O’Neill. David Vaughan mostly warmed the bench for Bruce but has since started every game, while James McClean has gone from playing in the reserves to becoming an active member of the first team.

One point that does come across is the consistency of selection under O’Neill. Nine players have started at least 75% of the games, compared to only five players under Bruce. In fact three players have started every game for O’Neill and, but for injuries to Simon Mignolet, Wes Brown, Kieran Richardson, Sebastian Larsson and Nicklas Bendtner, that figure could easily be eight. This also suggests that, rather than O’Neill being luckier with player availability, he has simply identified his favoured players much more quickly than Bruce.

Passing

While the personnel may not have changed dramatically, Martin O’Neill has certainly altered the way Sunderland play. Steve Bruce favoured a more patient approach, leading to shorter passing and plenty of square-balls across the midfield and defensive line. Under O’Neill Sunderland have looked to play much more directly, with lots of long-balls down the flanks and into the forwards.

The Guardian Chalkboards below demonstrate Sunderland’s contrasting passing patterns under the two managers. The games away to Norwich and home to Fulham, both under Bruce’s management, show a great deal of short passing across the centre of the pitch.

(Under Steve Bruce – high volume of short passing in the midfield area)

Following O’Neill’s appointment, Sunderland’s passing is very different in games away to QPR and at home to Everton. The clusters of passing in the midfield has been replaced with longer passes from defence.

(Under Martin O’Neill – majority of passes bypass the midfield)

This change in passing is further reflected by Sunderland’s passing success under the two managers. In the fourteen games prior to O’Neill’s appointment the team had a passing success of 76%. In the eight games since their success rate has dropped to 70%.

Possession

Sunderland’s direct approach has resulted in a drop in their share of possession. In the eight games under Martin O’Neill, Sunderland have only had the majority of the ball once, against Blackburn in his first game in charge, and average 42.3% possession overall. Whether there is a conscious intention to cede possession to their opponents and adopt a counter-attacking style is unclear, but certainly a pattern is evident. Under Steve Bruce Sunderland averaged 46.6% possession, which may not seem to be a considerable difference. However they had at least 50% possession in seven of fourteen games, winning only once and losing three times.

This may have influenced O’Neill’s plans, as clearly attempting to dominate possession was not working. Wigan are one of the few teams that both Bruce and O’Neill have faced this season, and the statistics are interesting. Under Steve Bruce Sunderland had 53% possession and lost 2-1. Under Martin O’Neill Sunderland had only 37% possession and won 4-1.

Defensive Line

Sunderland’s ceding of possession has led to another feature under Martin O’Neill, that of defensive depth. While Steve Bruce hardly played an aggressive press, he did attempt to play a much higher line and looked to win the ball further up the field. Since O’Neill has taken over, Sunderland’s defence has dropped much deeper and they have largely looked to drop back into their own half before attempting to win the ball back.

The Guardian Chalkboards below show the tackles attempted in two games under Bruce and two under O’Neill. In the games under Bruce, at home to Fulham and Wigan, Sunderland attempt as many tackles in the opposition’s half as their own.

(Under Steve Bruce – tackles are attempted all over the pitch)

With Martin O’Neill the majority of tackle attempts occur in Sunderland’s half of the pitch.

(Under Martin O’Neill – tackles are largely consigned to their own half)

Using the Wigan game again as a direct comparison it becomes clear how much deeper Sunderland played. Looking at the players’ average position using ESPN’s Soccernet GameCast you can see how Sunderland’s central defenders attempted to push up towards the halfway line under Bruce, whereas for O’Neill they remained on the edge of their own penalty area.

(Under Steve Bruce – only 4 players’ average position is in Sunderland’s half)

 

(Under Martin O’Neill – in a complete transformation, only 4 players’ average position is in the opponent’s half)

Summary

It seems that Martin O’Neill has prioritised making Sunderland difficult to beat, by dropping deeper and playing more directly, but in doing so has actually got them scoring more goals and winning more games.

The balance of the team appears to be better. James McClean has provided natural width on the left to compliment Sebastian Larsson on the other flank. Behind them Phil Bardsley has been moved to his preferred position of right-back with Kieran Richardson taking the left-back spot, resulting in two left-footed players on the left and two right-footed players on the right.

This has also allowed Stephane Sessegnon, arguably Sunderland’s best player this season, the freedom to play centrally and link the midfield to Nicklas Bendtner up front. He seems to have revelled in the role, with three goals and three assists in the eight games under O’Neill compared to two goals and three assists in fourteen games under Steve Bruce.

At the back the likes of Wes Brown and John O’Shea have benefitted from a deeper line and consistent selection, while ahead of them both Lee Cattermole and David Vaughan combine energy and ability on the ball. It is unsurprising that Vaughan has featured so heavily for O’Neill in this system given that direct passing to the flanks was a large part of Blackpool’s style last season.

Time will tell if O’Neill’s initial changes turn into long-term plans. Either way, it has been an excellent start, and the club now have an outside chance of qualifying for Europe. It will be interesting to see how the Sunderland board back O’Neill in the transfer market, seeing as a lack of funds reportedly caused him to walk out on Villa.

2011 – European Year in Review: Premier League, Primera Division, Serie A, Ligue 1, Bundesliga

The Theory

The league season may be the obvious way to track a club’s success, but a calendar year might be a better method to track a club’s progress.  Many teams begin a league season with a host of new players who naturally take time to integrate with the squad and adapt to the team’s style of play. Usually in the early months of a season, managers will gradually incorporate new signings into their existing side. If we accept that by the halfway point in a league season, most clubs will have a settled team and system, it may be true to say that a team in January will have more in common in terms of unity and ability with the team that begins the next campaign than the one that started the current one.

Similarly managerial dismissals are more common in the first half of the season than in the second half. Of the current Premier League managers, nine were hired between August and December compared to only five between January and May. Managers tend to get closer to completing a calendar year than they do a league season, and a change in manager is arguably the biggest catalyst to a dramatic change in form. Therefore, judging a team’s average points-per-game over a calendar year rather than a league season should offer a better guide to their progress as a club, rather than simply their performance in a given competition.

The Statistics

I recently posted an article that analysed the progress of current English Premier League clubs over the past two years using average points-per-game as an indicator of performance (http://footballspeak.com/post/2012/01/03/How-Premier-League-clubs-2011-form-compares.aspx), and some people suggested they would be interested in the statistics for other European leagues. I haven’t attempted to analyse the data as my knowledge of other leagues is limited, but the results are below.

The tables show the clubs’ average points-per-game (PPG) achieved in the league in the last two calendar years across the five biggest European leagues. The Change column represents the difference between a team’s ppg between 2010 and 2011, while the % Change column represents the percentage difference. A team with positive change will have improved in 2011 from the previous year, whereas a team with a negative change will have declined during the same period. Each league is ordered by the points-per-game earned in 2011, and so reflects how the league would look over the calendar year.

Naturally newly promoted sides have no comparison with 2010 unless they were relegated in the 09/10 season. To use their performances in the lower divisions would be flawed due to the obvious difference in quality. Their points-per-game for 2011 is still listed, but it should be noted this is only based on roughly the number of games played by the other teams. Similarly teams that were newly promoted in the 10/11 season have a smaller sample of games in 2010.

Premier League

 Primera Division

Serie A

Bundesliga

Ligue 1

 Observations

The most improved club across the five leagues is Monchengladbach who have increased their average points-per-game by a massive 110.7%. After a relegation battle in the 09/10 campaign and a miserable start to the 10/11 season they ended 2011 in 4th place in the Bundesliga. Honourable mentions go to Levante (65.6%), Atlanta (62.5%), Udinese (61.3%), Sporting Gijon (60.4%) and Malaga (53.9%), who have all improved by over 50% from 2010 to 2011.

No club has declined to the same extent, but some have given it a good go. Steve Kean will be pleased to know that his efforts have resulted in Blackburn achieving something – they are the worst performers across the five divisions when compared to their 2010 form. In 2011 Blackburn’s points-per-game average declined by a wretched 39.1%. Not far behind are Getafe (-36.7%), Freiburg (-35.6%), Bolton (-35.1%), Villarreal (-33.6%) and Stade Brest (-30.4%).  It will surprise nobody that both Freiburg and Villarreal have sacked their managers since the beginning of the season.  It will surprise everybody that Blackburn haven’t.

NB:

If anybody wishes to use these tables for an article, please message me on Twitter (https://twitter.com/nasher3230) and I will be happy to send you the Excel file.