Fulham, Moneyball, David Stockdale, John Terry, and why I’m more positive now

With the disappointing news that David Stockdale’s off it becomes clear that this just isn’t about dead wood.

Here are the positives around Stockdale:

- we got him when he was nobody. It’s nice to see young players come through.
– he’s a good player. England squad, remember?
– he seems like a good egg.
– he seems to ‘get’ Fulham, to the extent that such a thing really exists.
– if he was going to go he’s had several better times to do so, notably when he was being messed about in the latter stages of the Schwarzer era.
– we need a goalkeeper.
– Stekelenberg is presumably aiming higher.
– he ‘knows’ the Championship. I don’t know how that helps either, but everyone talks about knowing the Championship so who am I to disagree?

And so on. There are probably more. Stockdale’s a nice lad who’s good in goal. It feels like a shame to let him go. At this rate – and I’m barely joking – Fulham’s fans will barely recognise anyone when the team takes the field at Portman Road.

So what’s going on? Does Stockdale want a new start? Does the club want to rid itself of all remnants of the 2013-14 disaster? I don’t know. Probably someone else does.

But something else is occurring to me, regardless of the final diagnosis here.

Fulham are going American.

What? Well in baseball you have no relegation and something called a draft, by which teams are continually refurbished with young talent. The worse the team the better access to young talent.

And American sports being heavily unionised as they are, player salaries are quite well controlled. What this led to, probably 10 years ago now, was a fairly widespread realisation that older players were dramatically overpaid relative to younger players. Oh, sure, the coaches and older players would continually big up the need for ‘experience’, but when it came down to it an experienced home run looked a lot like an inexperienced one.

Thing is, a young player would be on a maximum contract of $350,000. It’s more now but bear with me. After a certain period of time the player could renegotiate this, but it meant that teams who were prepared to take a risk on young talent were at an advantage, provided they had identified the right young talent. Generally, once they’d been in the game 7-8 years, experienced players, even mediocre ones, would take home $2,000,000 a year. Again, it’s more now, but you can see the point.

I have long wondered to what extent you could take this over here. My argument, which may be wrong, would be that if you’re paying Darren Bent £50,000 a week and he is useless every single game, you could just as well have played Mousa Dembele, who presumably earns a tenth of that.

You could. I appreciate that “it’s not that simple”, but when it comes to awful performances it doesn’t really matter whether it’s a 28 year old making them or an 18 year old. Except financially: the 18 year olds cost a tenth as much.

Mr Khan and his sons will be all too aware of this, as are we having seen the cheap and cheerful Cauley Woodrow perform just as well as £70,000 Hugo Rodallega in the run-in. Chris David will earn a bit more but presumably much less than the experienced heads who had disappointed before he got the chance. Dan Burn and Brede Hangeland probably played at equivalent levels, but Burn would have earned a massive amount less than Hangeland. And so on.

Now, there’s a limit to all this. That’s why I was saying if you’re going to be awful you might as well be cheap and awful. But where’s the fine line.

My sense is that the powers that be have had a good think here and worked out what they think a player is worth. Say Stockdale’s bringing in £30,000 a week. This is a C+ goalkeeper in the big scheme of things, good but not irreplaceable. Fulham figure they’ve identified someone just as good and he’ll cost them £15,000 a week in wages. So they make the move.

It might be that simple. What if Fulham are ruthlessly moving on all players whose value can be replaced at a lower cost? Players who earned Premiership wages which, even if they’re now discounted, still represent poor investments. Ordinary players making extraordinary money.

My guess is that Mr Khan and his sons have sat down with the Fulham top brass and said “right, we have young kids, they’re good. We have old players, who aren’t that good. We don’t need both” and gone from there. There would have been some variation on the “you win nothing with kids talk” which is probably how we ended up with Ross McCormack (“get rid of all the players who earn too much and I’ll buy you a centre-forward”) but this squad absolutely screams “rational thinking” to me. And if Scott Parker’s still here it’s either because you can take these things too far and he’s a good egg, or we haven’t found anyone who will pay him that much for that long. Probably both.

An argument could and will be made that we’ve turned over too much too quickly, and there may be something too that, but in football an awful lot of money is chucked away. Agents fees are the obvious ones, but when you or I get an inflation indexed pay rise if our employer feels generous, footballers famously get doubled salaries, or extra bonuses, or all sorts of other things like that. Fine, it’s a jungle out there and you get what you can, but we’re in the Championship now. Yeah we’ve got money but so too did a lot of teams who have botched their bounce-back. Fulham are finally going about doing things properly.

We’ll lose games but we’ll do it with a young team that we can get behind. We’ll struggle to recognise the players we see but ideally they’ll have been recruited with a certain profile in mind. (Remember Roy Hodgson moving for players from Scandinavia and other English speaking nations? Well look here: Australians, Swiss, Germans. These nationalities, if we dare generalise, are good ‘character’ nationalities.) These new players won’t be on silly wages, they’ll be on appropriate wages. And of course we have the youngsters, these super talented youngsters, who might not get all that much exposure, who might not do as well as we’re hoping, but whose time is coming.

You know how much better England felt when John Terry was exiled? This is Fulham now. I’m not equating last year’s team with John Terry because that wouldn’t be fair, but in a way I am. Last season WAS John Terry like. The club are trying to remove all traces of our John Terry season, and appropriately enough for such an exercise, they’re doing it intelligently and apparently well. Next season feels like a good season to me. If losing David Stockdale is a bummer, I’m hoping that we did it for the right reasons. And even if we did it for the wrong reasons, it feels like the club is again moving in the right direction.

On Briggs

Really interesting article on a Millwall site about Matthew Briggs:

IAN Holloway will watch video footage of Matthew Briggs’ best and worst career performances before deciding whether to offer the trialist a deal.

Left back Briggs has featured in two pre-season friendlies – against Dartford and Stevenage – since linking up with the Lions at the start of last week.

But Holloway admits he has not yet decided whether to sign the 23-year-old.

The Millwall boss cannot understand why the former England U21 international has so far failed to deliver on his undoubted potential – and is looking for answers.

“Briggs is growing on me but I still need to find out one or two bits about him because I only enter into relationships that I’m sure about,” Holloway said.

“When people try to change a relationship, I don’t like it because I’d never do that myself.

“I have got to make sure Briggs wants the same things as I do and that I can help him with whatever has stopped him from getting those things.

“If I bring someone to my club who might not start well and then cannot handle it, then I’m wasting my chairman’s money.

“I need to find out certain things because I cannot understand for the life of me, with his athleticism and his wonderful left foot, why Fulham dreamt of letting him go.

“At one stage he was in the England set-up so maybe now he doesn’t feel wanted or loved, but I can’t bring in people who can’t deal with that and who don’t fight back.

“I really like Scott Malone, so I’ve got to bring in someone who can push him and challenge him – but I don’t care who plays.

“I haven’t watched Briggs as much as I should have done so we’re going to watch some of his games – one good one and one scheisse-pants one that is his worst fear.

“I want to see why things haven’t worked out. I think he stands there in a game wondering if he’s playing well or not and you can’t let those thoughts in.

“Can I cure that? I won’t do anything if I can’t, but if I can we could have one hell of a player on our hands.”

Very astute from Holloway, there.

Here’s what I’d said to my Millwall supporting friend, Lewis:

He can come across as an absolute wally.

I remember in the youth teams he looked like a nice kid, but about 3 years ago he covered himself in tattoos and started posting silly photos of himself with his hat on backwards, etc. The phrase “wannabe” sprang to mind. There’s a Juliana Hatfield song that goes:

this is not an attitude
that looks very good on you

Briggs has stuck around as he’s been at Fulham forever but his appearances in the first team have been borderline horrendous. He has a nice left foot and is athletic but when played at left back he’s been skinned alive repeatedly. In fairness he only seemed to get pitched in against the big teams for some reason but he got absolutely blown away. He got loaned out and wasn’t used, iirc (Watford when they were on fire). Could make it as a wing back if not asked to defend maybe. He’s a weird one in that physically he’s quite big so you wonder if left back is the right role. He could be one of those who could be transformed into a centre-forward or something and be a revelation. The tools are there but he just comes across as being very laid back which isn’t a good trait when you can’t defend.

Without going all guardian part of it is probably a need to feel valued. Hodgson wouldn’t play young players, Hughes was here very briefly, and Jol was a bit troublesome (apparently told Briggs he was playing at Swansea away, Briggs’ family went down there and he wasn’t even in the squad.

So it’s not been ideal for him but he’s been awful when pressed into action.

It’s a very good left foot though and he’s quick and strong so you never know.

 

PS you’ll forgive me talking about players not here any more.  It’s very hard to talk about players I’ve never seen before, and probably who I won’t see in the flesh.  As you know, we left London a while ago now – a year and a bit – and I can’t get to/don’t want to go to games now with two small kids.  Without actually being there to see people playing I’m not sure what value I can add so I’m not sure how much more I’ll be writing.  Which is a shame as in many ways I think next season will be among the best in recent memory; certainly I’d have loved to still be living 5 miles from the Cottage at this moment.

We’ll see.

Fullback debacle

fullbacks

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.

Here is an explanation that includes Lionel Messi and the average player.

Why it’s rarely about the individuals

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.

Anyway, the New York Times had a good summary of this.

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.

It refers to this NYRB piece:

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.

Brede Hangeland and the decline of Fulham FC

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?

 

Billy Beane

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

So when Beane speaks, it’s worth listening.  Here’s his take on the future of sports, and the role technology might take.

(to save you the bother, no, baseball is not like football.)

Thoughts on a world cup final

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.

Ross McCormack to Fulham

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:

next up

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.

graphic

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.

On luck

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:

CRC 4.5
ITA 4.2
URU 4.2
ENG 4.1

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:

Specimen 1:

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.

Specimen 2:

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.

Specimen 3:

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.