The Numbers Game: What’s Wrong With United’s 3-5-2?

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Louis Van Gaal promised change when he was made Manchester United manager. He suggested that a departure from the sadness of the previous nine months and a reversion to the confidence of the Sir Alex Ferguson era was in store. And all summer and preseason it looked like he’d delivered. The club brought in shiny new players that could work with his preferred 3-5-2 system, Luke Shaw and Ander Herrera, and they rolled through the competition in their preseason tour of the United States. But against Swansea on Saturday, United produced more of the same: inert possession and home disappointment.

Before delving into the tactical undoing of United at the weekend (and it was that, not mere bad luck or poor finishing), its important to give a bit of credit to Swansea who set up to deal with the system fantastically and were well organized at the back. A formation with one striker is always going to give the 3-5-2 difficulty, because you’re often put in positions where three players are marking one (in this case the central defenders and the lone striker). That “over-marking” leaves you short of players elsewhere on the park and Swansea’s first goal, a brilliant 29 pass move that has already been examined to death, was a perfect example of how winning the numbers game creates both time on the ball and space on the field. Angel Rangel and Ashley Williams both impressed in defense, while Ben Davies’ stand-in, Neil Taylor, had a game to forget. Gylfi Sigurdsson was immense in his return for the Swans.

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The 3-5-2, like most football formations, is ideologically sound. It’s predicated on the idea that a team will earn a numerical advantage in midfield while attacking, and a numerical advantage in defense while defending. This is enabled by the use of wingbacks, players that serve either an attacking and defending role based on the possession and location of the ball and start higher up the pitch than the traditional fullback. The Netherlands team that the Louis Van Gaal coached to the third place trophy at the World Cup had two players perfectly suited to this role in Daley Blind and Daryl Janmaat. In addition to wingbacks, the left and right centerback roles are also specialized for the system. These players need to be able to push up into midfield occasionally and (generally) have the footedness of the side they’re playing on as they spend more time in possession than they might in a four-man defense.

United’s failure on Saturday came down to a lack of understanding and a lack of specialization. The solutions to both of these problems will come with time. The team is still inexperienced in this new tactic and the new roles they’re playing within it. Players like Luke Shaw and Antonio Valencia will provide a huge boost when they recover from injury. Until then, however, it might be a bit of rough sailing, as some of the mistakes on Saturday were basic and horrific.

  • Juan Mata played far too high up the pitch the entire match. He was basically operating as a secondary striker/number 10. This would be fine in the attacking third, but he wasn’t coming back to receive the ball enough when United were deep and possession. As a result Herrera and Fletcher were anesthetized as they became swamped in midfield and could only really pass the ball to the backline and the wingbacks. Because of Mata’s positional error, United were always a man down in midfield and gaps started appearing between the lines for Swansea to exploit. I’m not sure he can even play in this system. It requires too much mental fortitude and consistency for an indulgent player like him. Jose Mourinho let him go because he lacked the discipline to perform in his Chelsea team and Van Gaal might be feeling a bit of history repeating itself. On Monday Night Football, Gary Neville did an excellent job of showing one of Mata’s situational failures; when United were in defense he left his man, Ki, to pursue the ball. This wound up giving him the space to score the opening goal. We already knew about his shortcomings in defense, but to also see him so lazy and tactically naïve when United were in possession was a surprise.

  • The centerbacks clearly have not had enough time. Against a lone striker one of the three defenders has to move up into the midfield whenever the striker drops deep to mark him. When this happens the rest of the team drops into a flatback four and it works terrifically. Bruno Martins Indi got done a few times at the World Cup, typical for an inexperienced player, but also he did a tremendous job of tracking dangerous players into the midfield and stopping moves before they could start. He was instrumental to the Netherlands’ success. On Saturday, Wilfried Bony was ostensibly allowed free reign drop in between the midfielders and the defenders, receive the ball and hold it up for his fellow attackers. That time on the ball allowed Swansea a foothold in the game.
  • The wing backs have been much discussed in the media, but the only point I’d like to hammer home is that, if your starting position is going to be at fullback (as it was in this game), you need a defensive player in that position or you’re not really benefitting from the talents that your wide players bring to the table. Januzaj was absolutely rampant going up against Taylor, but his introduction into the game also exposed how much better United were in attack when they played a 3-4-1-2 as compared to the 5-2-1-2 that they started out the match in. As the home side, and the side supposed to be attacking, United’s wingbacks should have been pushing Swansea’s wingers deeper into their own half. If Mata had actually kept a three man midfield in shape, this would have opened up the middle of the park for United and allowed the wingbacks enough the defensive space recover into when they lost the ball. 

  • In the second half, Manchester United switched to a 4-5-1, bringing on Nani, taking off Hernandez, and moving Jones over to fullback. Yet the problem with too few men in the midfield persisted. Many of United’s players just don’t have the right mentality as of now. You can’t have 4 players on the pitch (Mata, Nani, Januzaj, Young) who are only comfortable going forward. They’ve been asked to take on greater responsibilities and they just don’t currently have the mental or physical attributes to perform them. Look at the image below to see the effect that this imbalance has on a team. The lines between midfield and attack are stretched and there are few options to play out of the back. This led to the club revisiting the much maligned Moyes tactic of “lumping it up onto Fellaini’s head”. 

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  • To Young’s credit, he worked very hard in a position that he has never played much before, but when he was clearly beaten for Swansea’s final goal all of his naiveté as a defender was on display. Keeping him on as an out and out fullback was a mistake that was going to be punished.

It’s not all doom and gloom for United. The signing of left-footed centerback Marcos Rojo is a perfect move for the team. The former Sporting Lisbon defender is comfortable at centerback or leftback, has skill and ability on the ball, and is a nice physical player with good speed and strength. These qualities are hugely important for the specialized position of left centerback in a three-man defense. Juventus’s Chielliini is the prototype at that spot, but I’d bet that Rojo can come in and do a great job for the Red Devils. Rojo has his flaws, he’s too aggressive, gets a little lost positionally, and has a tough time marking quick players, but they’ll be mitigated if he plays the stopping defender role and Evans plays cover (as seems most likely). 

Make sure to check-in next week to see how the team is evolving. I wouldn’t bet against Van Gaal just yet, at least not until Shaw and Valencia return. United have too much quality injured or unfit to fairly judge their sour performance at the weekend. As is, its a minor hiccup on the road back to the top 4. 

1000 Ways to Victory

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One of my best friends from high school texted me the other day and told me that he was joining his “highly competitive” office fantasy league this year. The text, however, came because he knows next to nothing about the Premier League and the players that populate it. He wanted advice, but rather than just suggest players that he should either buy or avoid, I sat down and tried to empirically discover which positions scored the most, which provided the largest “advantage”, which were “the safest”, and which provided the most “value”. To do this, I sampled last season’s top 40 players at each position (sorted by total points) and also the top 40 players in price at each position. I found some interesting, counter-intuitive, information.

We’ll start with the base formation. I found that 4-5-1 is the formation that will maximize the amount of points one can score relative to the other teams in the league (with caveats that I’ll get to later). This is simply because the average midfielder and defender scores more than the average forward. The mean midfielder scoring from last season was 129 points, while the mean defender scoring was 118. Forwards only scored 104 points on average. 

But it’s also hugely important that the lone striker in the 4-5-1 is an excellent player. Forwards have the greatest deviation from that mean, with a standard deviation of 44 points. This means that picking one of the top 10 forwards is extremely important to success in the league and no expense should be spared in securing a Rooney or Dzeko type that represents guaranteed goals. A forward one deviation above the mean is more valuable, albeit marginally, than an average defender.

One’s midfield should do the heavy lifting for their team and be full of excellent players. The position has a moderate deviation of 31 points, but scores the highest on average at 129 points. The average price of £7m should really be considered the spending basement at the position. The Toures, Hazards, and Silvas of the league, players that both score and create goals, provide huge value and are the building block of success for one’s team.  

Finally, defense is an interesting position because there are a few £7m players, but then everyone else is available at a relatively affordable price. Should you go all out for Coleman and Ivanovic, or save your money on players like Shaw and Lovren? The data shows that the top 40 defenders both have the lowest average price at £5.5m and the lowest standard deviation from the mean, only 25 points. Scouting out some bargains at this position will allow one to invest elsewhere in the team without losing many points. Here’s a tip: If money is tight, invest in players from defensive teams like Crystal Palace, Hull, and West Ham. They won’t be glamorous, but they shouldn’t cost too many points over the course of a season if they’re rotated out before “big six” fixtures.

As a general philosophy one should be looking to spend the bulk of their funds on one striker and five midfielders, then fill the rest of the team from there. Scouting out effective bargains and subs is a huge part of constructing a dominant side; buying a cheap striker that goes on to bang in the goals enables one to downgrade their expensive striker to a more modestly priced backup and even further reinforce the totality of the team. Here are my five favorite “sleeper” picks. (Disclaimer: there are a disproportionate number of forwards and defenders, because this guide is based on the 4-5-1.)

Danny Ings:

Ings has three excellent skills, pace, dribbling, and finishing, that should translate well to the counter attacking game that Burnley will have to apply against the big sides in the league. One concern that I hear a lot is that he looked lost in front of goal until last season. I believe that a big reason for that change is that he began running at the defensive line consistently, rather than straying out wide or staying deep. This new found aggression and focus put him in a place to just score goals, and he did that in a huge way, bagging 21 and earning Player of the Year in The Championship. 8-10 goals from Ings seems like a good possibility, and, if he reaches that total, he represents good value at just £6m.

Bojan Krkic:

Make sure that he’s in Stoke’s first team before you include him in yours, but the diminutive Spaniard might actually be in a position to succeed now. He’ll employ his talents while surrounded by the protection of Stoke’s heavyweights. Look for players like Crouch and Arnautovic to set him up from knockdowns and for him to find more space because of their aerial threat. I’ve brought him in as a substitute to monitor his performance over the first couple weeks. If he impresses he could be a great buy. We will also find out if he can, after all, do it on a wet night in Stoke. 

Marc Albrighton:

If Leicester continues to employ it’s 4-4-2 this season, count on Albrighton to rack up the assists from midfield. The direct winger has a great cross on him and natural pace. His greatest weakness, strength, should be mitigated by the formation’s ability to earn him one-on-one situations on the flanks.

Mauricio Isla:

Harry Redknapp has decided to go three at the back for some odd reason. Take advantage of this and get a winger/midfielder who’s a defender in name. Isla was particularly good at that role as Lichtsteiner’s deputy at Juventus and should be one of the best players in a strangely concocted QPR side. 

Mathieu Debuchy:

Suggesting a member of Arsenal’s first team as a sleeper might seem a little odd, but at a price of only £5.5m, many might pass over him when looking at the best defenders. Sharing the flanks with players like Alexis Sanchez and Theo Walcott should free him up a lot of room, but also provide a bunch of assists as they are players that can score from the wing in Arsene Wenger’s 4-3-3. This could be a huge season for him.

Northern conspiracy no more?
Antonio Conte becomes Italy’s first manager from South of Rome. 

Northern conspiracy no more?

Antonio Conte becomes Italy’s first manager from South of Rome. 

Aston Villa Offseason Recap

I wrote some words on the ongoing struggles for the club for The News Hub. Check em out if you’d like to make fun of me.

Diego Costa at 19. An old soul…and body

Diego Costa at 19. An old soul…and body

The pitch is being readied for the game. 

The players are at the training ground, weaving in between cones and catching balls punted at the goal. 

The club shop is quiet, for a tuesday.

Seats in the stadium are filled with the ghosts of Saturday’s supporters, whispering like the wind in the groundkeepers ear.

He is there. Every week. Painting the lines. Playing the unseen game between the spray of the tracer and the blades it covers. 

Where are you?

The pitch is being readied for the game. 

The players are at the training ground, weaving in between cones and catching balls punted at the goal. 

The club shop is quiet, for a tuesday.

Seats in the stadium are filled with the ghosts of Saturday’s supporters, whispering like the wind in the groundkeepers ear.

He is there. Every week. Painting the lines. Playing the unseen game between the spray of the tracer and the blades it covers. 

Where are you?

A Few Notes From Aston Villa’s Texas Tour:

- It’s the preseason so take this all with a grain of salt. The players are gelling, shedding the pounds of lager they put on in “ma-jor-ca”, and coming to terms with the existence of Alan Hutton. 

- I hate how the club web-stream commentators pronounce the “Philippe” in Philippe Senderos as though he were a little toy dog named Filipe.

- Some have been suggesting that bringing Senderos will “stunt the development” of Nathan Baker. It’s hard to stunt that which is already retarded and that, my friend, is the definition of Nathan Baker at the back. He plods around with heavy feet scything at everything a mere lunge away because his positioning is just that awful. He’s the worst center back I’ve ever watched week in and week out. It’s hard to maintain your dignity after being carved apart by MLS garbagemen.

- Lowton looks good again. He came off the burner a little bit last season, but he’s been a real bright spot in Texas. He’s regained that ball control in the attacking third and nice first touch that made him such a hassle going forward in the past. Looking forward to seeing him, Vlaar, and Okore. 

- Joe Cole is hurt. Water is wet. 

- It’s too soon to say whether Charles N’Zogbia will invest an ounce of real energy into the success of the team, but, if he does (and I somehow doubt it), the technique is still there. Brought it up and down over the wall perfectly to seal the win against Dallas. He also tried some dribbles and passes, but their results were as inconsistent as his performances. 

- Does Chris Herd have a future in the Premier League, at the Club? He’s never obnoxiously horrid, but he clearly just doesn’t have the technique to be a Premier League footballer. It’s a shame because I think he’s got the mentality and he’s a hard worker, but that only gets you so far. It’s a mystery why he’s still involved at all. 

- I have the same problem with Weimann as I do with Herd, although to a lesser degree. He can clearly contribute, but I can’t help but feel that the Championship is more his level. His dribbling and first touch are all to often loose and although he “goes and goes” that’s starting to become all that he does. I’m afraid he’s becoming Park Ji-Sung without the technique.

- Senderos hasn’t done anything glaringly bad, but it seems like he has trouble tracking multiple players and runs and got caught out of place a few times with smart runs from the Dynamo forwards. Not sure he’s going to fly as a long-term solution in the Premier League (as we recently saw at Fulham). I think I don’t hate him as a 3rd or 4th option at CB.  

- All-in-all, it was a productive tour and seemed like a fun experience bringing our shit brand of football to shit clubs in America. Villa somehow won both of these matches despite playing absolutely wretched stuff. Our mediocre, yet combative midfielders, launched into flying tackles in friendly matches, we had no fluency in the counter attack, and I’m pretty sure that both of the MLS teams created more chances. I guess that’s a sign that we’re on the up and up. As Sir Alex says, it’s winning when you play poorly that’s the mark of a champion, or something like that. It’s coming home. It’s coming home. All the trophies are en route to Villa Park.

Oh Samwise Allardyce, has the ogre met it’s death (has Jay Spearing come to rest)? 
The news of Andy Carroll’s injury will come as a blow to the Hammers and, principally, the Lord of “Out-Tacticing”, Big Sam. The tears of a man who has no pony-tailed behemoth to exploit. No knock downs for Kevin Nolan to run onto. No balls lumped from the back onto massive drunken domes. 
Route One is gone, in it’s wake the bodies of forlorn players: the Downings, the Coles, the Jarvises, and, of course, the O’Briens. Those who have nothing more to offer than a “good cross” or a “cultured left foot”. Without a Carroll their balls lumped into the box are mere leaves floating in the wind of a crisp London day, falling, falling, until the linesman draws his flag down.
Sure there a faint glimmer of hope in Enner Valencia and his plea for a work permit, he bounced some balls off his big noggin in Mexico and at the World Cup (hey, buying players based off a few good matches at the World Cup has never backfired before right?). But is that hope real? How can you trust a man that continues to field James Collins, a bald welshman who was past in 3 years ago? A man that has kicked out his most talented player, Ravel Morrisson, instead of mentoring and embracing him like he once had to do with Carroll?
The truth is that Big Sam and his cult of personality will never be a success because he’s more concerned with himself than his players or his team. He takes the plaudits when they win and they take the blame when they lose. This is no way to manage a club, or anything really. 
I can’t wait for the fat man to sing and his shit brand of football to be over. Back to the championship with you (we can hope). There’s only room for one team in Claret and Blue (you can fuck off too Burnley).

Oh Samwise Allardyce, has the ogre met it’s death (has Jay Spearing come to rest)

The news of Andy Carroll’s injury will come as a blow to the Hammers and, principally, the Lord of “Out-Tacticing”, Big Sam. The tears of a man who has no pony-tailed behemoth to exploit. No knock downs for Kevin Nolan to run onto. No balls lumped from the back onto massive drunken domes. 

Route One is gone, in it’s wake the bodies of forlorn players: the Downings, the Coles, the Jarvises, and, of course, the O’Briens. Those who have nothing more to offer than a “good cross” or a “cultured left foot”. Without a Carroll their balls lumped into the box are mere leaves floating in the wind of a crisp London day, falling, falling, until the linesman draws his flag down.

Sure there a faint glimmer of hope in Enner Valencia and his plea for a work permit, he bounced some balls off his big noggin in Mexico and at the World Cup (hey, buying players based off a few good matches at the World Cup has never backfired before right?). But is that hope real? How can you trust a man that continues to field James Collins, a bald welshman who was past in 3 years ago? A man that has kicked out his most talented player, Ravel Morrisson, instead of mentoring and embracing him like he once had to do with Carroll?

The truth is that Big Sam and his cult of personality will never be a success because he’s more concerned with himself than his players or his team. He takes the plaudits when they win and they take the blame when they lose. This is no way to manage a club, or anything really. 

I can’t wait for the fat man to sing and his shit brand of football to be over. Back to the championship with you (we can hope). There’s only room for one team in Claret and Blue (you can fuck off too Burnley).

The 2014 FIFA World Cup is over, but it has left a series of indelible images on the tapestry of the game. Van Persie’s diving header. The sad passing of Alfredo di Stefano. Tim Cahill’s wonder goal. The death of tiki taka. Suarez’s bite. The coronation of James Rodriguez. Germany 7 - 1 Brazil. Götze’s goal. Lahm receiving and lifting the trophy. These words read like snapshots brought out of memory in flipbook form: hearing them unfurls a reel of memories and associations. 

This was the game at its peak. An orgy of goalscoring in the group stages provided a nice precursor to the tension and suspense of the knockout rounds. France 98’s goalscoring record barely stands, but, as Müller noted in Bavarian last night “who cares about that bullshit” (his comment was re: Golden Boot). 

It was a counter-example to the constant eulogization of “true football”. The purity of the game is certainly tarnished to a degree when it comes to the modernization, money, and inequality of club football, but when one sees the tears in the eyes of David Luiz and James Rodriguez, the pride of Keylor Navas, and the ecstasy of the Germans, it’s easy to see why football continues to be the most popular sport in the world: the funny old game means more to the people that play and watch it than anything else. 

The tournament was also a celebration of unity. “The Team” won the trophy in the end and succeeded throughout the rounds. Costa Rica, Netherlands, Germany, and Colombia played the most cohesive football and that’s why they impressed so much. Understanding and organization, at any level of the game, are the building blocks of success. The Germans pressed and passed magnificently. They operated as a unit, moving forward and backwards in unison and occupying the pitch like a fortress. It wasn’t merely controlled possession, sitting in a defensive shell, counter-attacking, or high-pressing liquid football, it was a little bit them all. And the players always seemed to be on the same page as to the best time to exercise a particular element of the gameplan. This served as a sharp contrast to the Brazilians, who, in the tournaments seminal 7-1 drubbing, seemed to be divided into little groups of autonomous selecao members doing whatever they thought best. Those that play together, stay together (or something like that). The Germans won for a reason.

June 12th to July 13th also represented an important month in my life. I underwent surgery to repair a torn labrum on the 18th. I suffered the injury while playing basketball and dislocated and fractured my shoulder in the process. The cup, the love of family and friends, a few painkillers, and a lot of beer, has me back at a point where the sling is off and I can write again. The recovery will be slow and the physical therapy is like a medieval torture rack, but I’m on my way and I couldn’t have picked a better or worse time. It sucked to not have been able to provide content to the readers of A Football Report, FIFA, or The Unseen Game in the most important month of the new decade, but I’ll be posting more often now and hope that you’ll find something interesting to read. It’s the low points where you need content to occupy the holes of boredom anyway.

Much love,

John

days away. 

this world cup will be bigger than we know. 

it’s hard to take a moral stance, considering that I love both the game in brazil and the country’s people. these two ideas are becoming increasingly irreconcilable as extreme poverty and a lack of beneficial government structure has made the country one of the prime examples of “haves and have-nots”. 

lets see what happens.