Ted Knutson of Statsbomb has produced the above for Fulham’s fullbacks. The point here is that the spider web would be all full of colour if the player was doing all of these things really well relative to others at their position. So per 90 minutes, how many times are Riether and Riise tackling, or intercepting opponents’ passes? Well, the answer is “never”, almost. These numbers are adjusted to cater for the frequencies of opponents’ attacks, too. So with all the defending Fulham did, the fact that our full-backs basically never tackled looks troublesome. Riether’s defenders would say that he is a good attacking player, but here we see that he didn’t ever cross the ball either.
I think part of why I spent so long defending some Fulham players last season was a feeling that the game is collective and therefore anything an individual does or doesn’t do is in part a function of what everyone else is doing. When you get a collective meltdown it’s very hard for anyone to thrive.
Soccer is not like that. In soccer, almost no task, except the penalty kick and a few others, is intrinsically individual. Soccer, as Simon Critchley pointed out recently in The New York Review of Books, is a game about occupying and controlling space. If you get the ball and your teammates have run the right formations, and structured the space around you, you’ll have three or four options on where to distribute it. If the defenders have structured their formations to control the space, then you will have no options. Even the act of touching the ball is not primarily defined by the man who is touching it; it is defined by the context created by all the other players.
As Critchley writes, “Soccer is a collective game, a team game, and everyone has to play the part which has been assigned to them, which means they have to understand it spatially, positionally and intelligently and make it effective.” Brazil wasn’t clobbered by Germany this week because the quality of the individual players was so much worse. They got slaughtered because they did a pathetic job of controlling space. A German player would touch the ball, even close to the Brazilian goal, and he had ample room to make the kill.
Allow me to state the bleeding obvious: this is a tactical game. It is not about passion and individual genius, notwithstanding the relentless commodification of stars like Messi, Ronaldo, and Neymar. No, soccer is about the use of reason and intelligence in order to construct a collective team formation that will contain and defeat the opposition. It requires discipline and relentless training, particularly in order to maintain the shape of the team and the way it occupies and controls space. This is the job of the coach, who tends to get reduced to some kind of either bizarrely animated comic character or casually disaffected bystander when games are televised. But he is the one who sets the team up to play a certain, clearly determined way, the prime mover although sometimes moved rather than unmoved.
Otherwise said, soccer is not about individual players. You can have great individual players in the wrong shape and the results can be tragi-comical, as with veteran English midfielder Steven Gerrard’s performances at this World Cup, where he ran around breathless, pink-faced, and making mistakes, like the one that led to Uruguay’s winning goal. This doesn’t happen (so much) when he plays for Liverpool because he is part of a rational system that he understands, which has a number of interconnected moving parts and which is defined by the ability to relax and rely on your teammates. Soccer is a collective game, a team game, and everyone has to play the part which has been assigned to them, which means they have to understand it spatially, positionally, and intelligently and make it effective. This is what Costa Rica has shown to great effect, without any star players. They know exactly what they are doing and play with admirable pride and trust in their coach.
After the fun and games with Riise and Kvist, Brede Hangeland has expanded on his beefs with Fulham, and Felix Magath in particular.
“He is very difficult to work with. He has a reputation of being a very strict manager, which he is. His main tool is to try and mentally and physically batter his players and then hopefully get some results out of that. Is that a right fit for English football? I don’t think so personally. Rather than help us try and avoid relegation, he made things worse and harder for us. I hope I’m wrong because I really love the club but, in a word, no – I don’t think he is the right man. I think things will get worse before they get better and I really think that what’s happening now at the top of Fulham is very disconnected, and very far from the Fulham that I know and from the Fulham fans.”
That’s pretty damning. People have been quick to write this off as sour grapes, but this is Brede Hangeland we’re talking about here. Of all the people to go mouthing off… well he wouldn’t be high on the list, would he?
Egil Østenstad, former Norway footballer of distinction, said on Twitter:
“There are few people I know posessing as much integrity as Brede. His opinions matter and should be taken seriously by Fulham.”
I’m inclined to agree.
Fulham moved quickly though:
“Mirror Sport understands, however, that before being released last month it was Hangeland himself who had lost support within the dressing room. The players are understood to have told CEO Alistair Mackintosh that they didn’t feel Hangeland was mentally strong enough to cope with the fight to keep the club in the Premier League.”
Yikes. That’s a bit below the belt. Can you actually imagine a Fulham player, having seen the chaos around the club, going to Alistair Mackintosh to complain about Hangeland’s mental strength?
Well maybe. Suppose it went something like this: Hangeland playing through back pain, increasingly fed up as his performances suffer. Withdraws from limelight to recuperate and get his back fixed. Maybe people got cross about that, felt he could have played on when they needed him most. Maybe he was fed up about the club’s absolute inability to play coherent football, absolutely exposing the centre-backs. Maybe he got into his own head a bit, withdrew, didn’t present the kind of leadership persona (what am I typing here?) that perhaps the players needed from their captain.
I don’t know. I do wonder why senior professionals weren’t able to restore some semblance of organisation to what became an absolute joke of a football team. They were two seasons removed from being organised like an army. Seeing the descent into shambles, couldn’t the senior professionals have organised something? Afternoon defensive work perhaps? “Look guys, we’re on track to concede 85 goals here. Shall we do some shape work?”
Who knows what goes on in the dank pond of a footballer’s mind. Maybe Hangeland tried all this. Maybe nobody was interested. Maybe they did it but Sascha Riether wouldn’t stop overlapping, even when the opposition had the ball.
One thing’s for sure: I’m more inclined to believe Brede Hangeland than the Fulham press office.
Having briefed the Mirror Fulham complete their rebuff by wheeling out captain du jour Scott Parker, who has nothing but good things to say about the club and the manager.
“Training’s been really good. It’s been intense but we wouldn’t expect it or want it any other way ahead of a new season. The gaffer is working us hard and the boys are looking sharp as a result. Everyone’s raring to go. There are a lot of young boys in the squad so they’re eager to impress and there are a few new signings as well who are looking to show what they can do. We want to hit the ground running. There are a lot of opportunities for everyone in the squad and that makes it a good environment for everyone.”
Well that’s alright then isn’t it?
If you’ve read Moneyball (and if not, why not?) you’ll know about Billy Beane, the Oakland Athletics General Manager who’s trick is to build very successful teams without spending much money. He’s doing it again this year: the A’s are the best team in baseball; their payroll is 25th out of 30.
1. LA Dodgers $235,295,219
2. NY Yankees $203,812,506
3. Philadelphia Phillies $180,052,723
4. Boston Red Sox $162,817,411
5. Detroit Tigers $162,228,527
6. LA Angels $155,692,000
7. San Francisco Giants $154,185,878
8. Texas Rangers $136,036,172
9. Washington Nationals $134,704,437
10. Toronto Blue Jays $132,628,700
11. Arizona Diamondbacks $112,688,666
12. Cincinnati Reds $112,390,772
13. St. Louis Cardinals $111,020,360
14. Atlanta Braves $110,897,341
15. Baltimore Orioles $107,406,623
16. Milwaukee Brewers $103,844,806
17. Colorado Rockies $95,832,071
18. Seattle Mariners $92,081,943
19. Kansas City Royals $92,034,345
20. Chicago White Sox $91,159,254
21. San Diego Padres $90,094,196
22. NY Mets $89,051,758
23. Chicago Cubs $89,007,857
24. Minnesota Twins $85,776,500
25. Oakland A’s $83,401,400
26. Cleveland Indians $82,534,800
27. Pittsburgh Pirates $78,111,667
28. Tampa Bay Rays $77,062,891
29. Miami Marlins $47,565,400
30. Houston Astros $44,544,174
(to save you the bother, no, baseball is not like football.)
If we do get a Germany v Netherlands final I’ll be pleased.
Some time ago I was researching the history of the sweeper and watched a lot of games from the sport’s past. One player I was particularly interested in was Franz Beckenbauer, so I made a point of digging out quite a few games he played in.
Beckenbauer, as we all know, was West Germany’s star player and icon, but he also ran Bayern Munich’s all conquering side from the early 70s. That team won the European Cup in 73-74 and 74-75, and the Bundesliga from 71-74.
Now, since then the Holland team has ascended into football’s pantheon on the back of the neat “total football” branding thing (also they were really good) but it’s almost as if the West Germany team of the time was just incidental to the game and played spoilsports to the Dutch masters, denying Cruyff et al the title their talents deserved. This is not the case at all: the West Germans, leaning heavily on that Bayern Munich side, was absolutely brilliant. I’ve watched a few games from the era and they had it all, a complete (and very attractive) football team. So yes, the Dutch missed the boat there and hasn’t won the World Cup since, but that West German side was red hot.
And if Holland don’t win we get a replay of the 1986 final, in which Argentina went 2-0 up, West Germany clawed back to 2-2, then Argentina nicked a winner. Another fine game.
So everyone’s a winner. Football’s so much more potent when it has a historical anchor. We’ve got that now.
We needed this one.
If you look at the last nine sides to go down and what happened to them next, the signs aren’t good:
The numbers in italics are what Fulham might be expected to achieve based on what’s happened before.
Clearly this is an exact science (a very long way from it) but when a team is as bad as Fulham were the next season tends not to be great. My very basic excel predictor suggested that we’d score 52 and concede 69 next year, which would land us in about 18th place, give or take. I do understand the limitations of this – teams change, after all, and a lot of teams do much better in the championship – but it does rather hint at the difficulties involved in transforming basket cases to super teams. And look at the list above. While there aren’t any clear clues about which teams improve and which stay bad, it can’t be a good thing that Fulham are going down with a worse defensive record than anyone else has had in the last three years, without the goals tally in attack that might justify this.
In short, we couldn’t just flop down and expect things to be better because we’d been up top a few years, because the playing staff really isn’t good enough for that. Our closest comparator was Wolves, who kept on going. Something needed to be done.
If there’s such a thing as a sure thing in the Championship, Ross McCormack is it.
His goalscoring record is remarkable, both in terms of its quantity and the extent to which he dominated Leeds’ attack. He partnered well with Matt Smith last year, as stereotypical a “big man” as you could hope to see, and I suspect this bodes well for Hugo Rodallega, who is better in the target man role than he looks like he should be. It should be an extremely potent combination.
What might it mean? Well let’s say Cauley Woodrow would have been good for 10 goals. A good number of Championship players score 10 goals. It’s a fair assumption for an unproven young player on a middle of the road team. Suppose that in the same games McCormack bags us 25. Suddenly we’ve gained 15 goals. (yes, yes, I know). If that means we score 67 and concede 69 then now we’re suddenly looking at a 10th place team, give or take.
THEN, if we can tighten up at the back and bring in a central midfielder then suddenly you’re looking at the play off places.
So it’s important that we did this and it could make a huge difference. I suspect we need a signing of similar magnitude in the middle of the pitch but this is a big deal.
NOTE: CHANGED MY MIND ABOUT THE LIKELY LEVEL OF FFC NEXT YEAR. SEE COMMENTS.
Just to think about luck a bit more. Suppose each team in England’s group was exactly equal. It’s actually not far off probably, all considered. What would happen then?
Every game would be drawn? No, not really, because football’s football isn’t it? Balls bounce in odd ways, luck goes here and there, and someone usually wins.
So I simulated 100 group stages.
Each team was exactly equal, e.g. they all had the same chance of scoring the same number of goals in each game.
After 100 tournaments the average number of points from the group were:
That’s quite interesting already isn’t it? That in 100 tournaments we still get randomness effects. Costa Rica are the same team as England here, but owing to the randomness of all this are averaging 4.5 points per tournament, versus England’s 4.1.
Costa Rica went through the group unbeaten 22 times, whereas England managed the same thing only 12 times. (Italy 15, Uruguay 13). Remember, these teams are all equal strength.
So really, when you have four teams of roughly equal strength, pretty much anything can happen.
Let’s take a couple of tournaments at random:
ENG 0 ITA 1
URU 3 CRC 0
ENG 0 URU 1
ITA 3 CRC 3
ENG 0 CRC 1
ITA 1 URU 1
Here England’s overly defensive play cost them dearly. They kept things tight but were beaten by the only goal of the game in all three matches. This proved that England lacked cutting edge, were too negative, and need to buck their ideas up. By the time they lost 1-0 to Costa Rica in game three they were already out.
Meanwhile the swashbuckling Uruguayans ripped minnows Costa Rica a new one, edged tepid England and played out a savvy mutually beneficial draw with Italy to finish up.
Costa Rica had bravely beaten England in the last game and had more than played their part in a 3-3 thriller with Italy, but that initial shellacking by Uruguay was too big a hole to get out of.
Italy did what they had to, beating England in Manuas, slipping against Costa Rica in that 3-3 game, and getting the point they needed in game 3.
ENG 1 ITA 1
URU 3 CRC 2
ENG 3 URU 1
ITA 1 CRC 3
ENG 1 CRC 3
ITA 2 URU 3
England and Italy played out a predictable 1-1 draw in Manaus to open the group. Meanwhile, free scoring Uruguay beat Costa Rica 3-2. England thrill everyone with a big win in game 2, but take their eye of the ball in the crucial third game and lose their chance to progress.
ENG 1 ITA 0
URU 1 CRC 1
ENG 1 URU 0
ITA 2 CRC 2
ENG 2 CRC 2
ITA 1 URU 1
Here canny England did what they had to do, eking out 1-0 wins against the big guns and holding off against a surprisingly talented Costa Rica in game 3 to qualify.
You get the idea.
The World Cup is a one off event. When four equal teams come together pretty much anything can happen. It’s too easy to fit the narrative to events (and of course that’s what we all do, and what journalists are paid to do) but really, in this situation, the four teams really were about even in quality. Anything could have happened. England didn’t prevail, but easily could have done so. It’s not proof of anything much that we didn’t.
Saturday’s game reminded me of something I learned researching the Roy book.
Hodgson’s Inter got to the 1997 UEFA Cup Final, where they played Schalke 04 of Germany.
The Schalke coach, Huub Stevens, had an inkling that the game might go to penalties so put together a database of Inter players’ tendencies from 12 yards. He gave this to his keeper, Jens Lehman, and of course the match did finish level (over two legs) and did go to penalties.
I would urge you all to quickly watch the clip below as it’s one of the clearest cases of a player being spooked you’ll ever see. Lehman goes to Aron Winter (contrast the body language of the two players!) and apparently tells him he knows where the kick’s going. Winter, who looks like he’s seen a ghost, gently slides the ball wide.
I mentioned it in passing below, but by my reckoning Costa Rica caught their opponents offside 41 times this World Cup. There was a spell when basically Holland were caught every time they tried to attack. This, to me, really speaks for the value of hard work in defending. It has been noted in the newspapers that individually, the Costa Rica defence aren’t superstars. But they have worked really hard together to become a functional unit. Danny Murphy kept saying in commentary on Saturday that this doesn’t just happen by saying you’re going to be a good defence, you have to work really hard at it. We know all about that, don’t we? (I think the second highest in terms of offsides was Germany with 12).
Thing is, we can guess that this kind of organisation can happen quite quickly. Tony Pulis took over a Crystal Palace side that was full of empty-headed attack and turned that on its head, creating an organised, grizzly Crystal Palace side that became hard to beat quite quickly.
I bring this up again to (again) wonder why Fulham were so slow to fix last year’s problems. The team was so obviously bad that something really had to be done. Rene Meulensteen was effectively a skills coach at Manchester United, wasn’t he? In retrospect it’s hard to understand how he was considered to be the right man to fix Fulham’s issues.
I know this isn’t new but the more you think about last season the worse it gets. In the face of very obvious problems you at least have to have a stab at getting an answer. People moan about statistics but a number of (free) analytical websites pointed out very quickly that Fulham were becoming historically bad defensively. As in the worst in Europe. As in the kind of team that’s going to get relegated without much of a fight, according to Premier League precedents. So now, what’s the story here:
a) Fulham were aware of this information
b) Fulham were not aware of this information
c) It’s more complicated than that, isn’t it?
If a, something clearly had to be done to fix the defence. It wasn’t done. Is this because Fulham were aware of this information but didn’t believe it/felt themselves above this kind of thing, or that Fulham did believe it but assumed it would get better. Either way, it demanded a fix. There was no fix. If you believe Brede Hangeland, there was no attempt at a fix.
If b, you have to ask why not? Even if they don’t ‘like’ statistics – and I know very well that not everyone does – there was ample eyeball evidence that the defensive side of the game was horribly wrong. I hate to think that, like a lot of fans, the powers that be were fixated on the team’s attacking issues (many still believe that Dimitar Berbatov was the main problem).
Or c and perhaps d and all of this known and on the to-do list, but lost in the constant shuffle of managers and coaches?
I don’t know. But Jorge Luis Pinto could presumably have organised this team in no time. Would it have been enough? I think it would, yes.
It’s awfully easy to diagnose things in hindsight with no responsibility isn’t it? But even so.