Moving on – what to look for this weekend

An interesting perspective on the Manchester United game from a commenter on the website.

The ‘analytics community’, such that it is, have been looking at Fulham with mouths agape this year.

The reason is the shots disparity.

This is important because shots for and against are in many ways a better indicator of a team’s ability than are goals. No really. The problem with goals is that they are rare and relatively random, especially in the short term. Teams can and do play well without getting the goals their play deserves.

If you think about most goals you see this becomes reasonably clear: while football rewards good play and good teams usually beat bad teams, within 90 minutes all kinds of strange things can happen to make the use of actual goals a bit tricky. A goal will usually be the product of some effective play, a mistake (usually more than one) in the defence, and some luck, too. Throw all this into 90 minutes and this is why it’s hard to predict individual matches and almost impossible to predict correct scores.

Anyway, here is Fulham’s problem:

We have been absolutely battered this season. Usually with statistical analysis you take your numbers then look for a qualitative explanation: are the numbers reasonable? If not, why not? You use these things as a basis for what we might optimistically call diagnosis; what on earth is going wrong?

The numbers for Fulham have been historically bad. We’ve been outshot to such a degree, against ordinary teams, that things genuinely do look very very bad. It suggests that the points we do have have been earned fortunately, for one thing, and I think that’s true: Sunderland dominated us but we scored from a corner to snatch the game. Against Crystal Palace, a terrible team, we were well and truly under it until that man Kasami scored that wonder strike. Then Steve Sidwell knocked one in, too. These goals weren’t random but they weren’t exactly a result of a coherent plan, a repeatable circumstance; they were out of this world. They count like any other goal but you can’t rely on screamers all season, can you?

Anyway, the point of all this: Manchester United. We conceded three early on and in some ways that led me to believe that everything we achieved afterwards could be discounted. I still think that might be true to a degree: United had the game wrapped up, had to make three substitutions; it’s no wonder we got back into it.

But the thing here is that we didn’t just get back into it, we actually gave a fair crack at retrieving the game. United weren’t just sitting back and limiting us to hopeless long-shots, we made real chances. And a few of them, too. It was, at long last, a real performance. It gives us some hope for the weeks ahead.

It would be daft to take a good 45 minutes as evidence that a corner is being turned, but it would be just as daft to write that 45 minutes off altogether. Liverpool’s exciting attacking play will tie our team in knots if we defend ‘like that’ again, but there’s some quality in our own team and while a heavy defeat must be the most likely result, it will be very interesting to see how things are shaping up.

Signs of progress, even in defeat, might be:

1. A sensible balance of shots. Looking at the chart above, we need to get to double figures here, and we need to keep their attempts sensible as well. You can’t go around with 19-3 differentials and expect to win anything; this desperately needs to improve. You can’t just go around saying “we need 10 shots” but to accomplish this would at least demonstrate that we’d been in the game.

This is in some ways the end product of the other things we need to do. We can’t stop them shooting if we have no defensive protection; we can’t create shots if we dilly dally all day and have no attacking movement. We need a target of keeping up with Liverpool in the shots stakes, and a plan to achieve this.

I won’t keep harping on but some of this is Derek Boateng, some of this is Scott Parker staying near his defence, and part of it is attacking patterns (e.g. have some, rather than trying to work out a big move on the fly).  If you insist on playing Ruiz and Berbatov tell both of them you expect them to make a shots from inside the area.

Part of it is passion. We English fans are terrible on this front, in that we tend to rate passion over quality, but there’s something to this as well. Look at Jose Mourinho’s reaction to Chelsea losing at Newcastle. What he’s been describing is Fulham all season. We don’t need Derek Boateng and Steve Sidwell sliding into Liverpool’s skill players all day, but we do need a sense of urgency, a tempo, a controlled aggression.

2. Rack up some fouls. We seem a bit too easy to play against. A number of sensible fouls would suggest that we at least got in Liverpool’s faces a bit, slowed down their breaks and allowed us to get men back in set positions when we’re stretched.

3. Perseverance in the face of being dominated. Liverpool are a really good team and match up well with us. They have skilful front players and players like Lucas who are very good at protecting the back four (or three, or whatever they do). It will be a really tricky match for us but we need to win battles, we need to dust ourselves off whenever Suarez and Sturridge turn us inside out for the fifth time. We need to accept this and we need to play with a purpose anyway. Try things; break quickly; make life uncomfortable to the extent we are able. Evidence of this would probably just be from keeping the game close. There is no shame in losing 2-1 or something but at this level we should have the capability to avoid a drubbing.

5 thoughts on “Moving on – what to look for this weekend

  1. It’s easy to discard formation talk when there’s clearly no system of play but I’m really starting to wonder if the 4-2-3-1 Jol has trotted out every match this season and most of last is a major elephant in the room, and something that needs to change if we expect Saturday to be any different.

    In order for that formation to work, you need all 3 mids, especially the wide players, to help out on D, while also having the 1 striker keep the defenders honest. Look at any GA or SA stills and notice where our mids are–no wonder our defense is in shambles and conceding so many shots.

    I think slotting Boateng in the middle will help; but so too would switching to a 4-1-4-1, or even a 4-3-3–both Jol has never tried as manager. The offensive personnel on this team is not one to track back and play defense, so why play a formation that requires it?

  2. I remember Jol using a 4-1-4-1 against Man City a couple of years ago and it worked beautifully. Murphy in front of the back 4 with Dempsey- Dembele- Sidwell – Duff behind a striker (Zamora maybe?).

  3. This is a really spot on analysis and as you point out, amongst a sea of analysis this feels like an absolute key metric. It also provides a very easy way to illustrate to the ‘non-Fulham-fans-lucky-to-have-Jol’ brigade why we’re a little disgruntled. It’s also interesting as it highlights that good sides (Utd, Southampton, Arsenal, Chelsea) score comfortably from the chances they create, and the so-so sides (Newcastle, Sunderland etc.) don’t tend to.

    First and foremost, we’d all love it if Jol was doing the job his reputation suggests he’s capable of doing – he comes across as a good chap, well liked within the football circles – but this analysis has highlighted the real story of the first 10 games:- we’re very fortunate to have 10 points from the performances given by the team, and the 3 wins have come against sides who’ve been struggling in the league every bit as much as we have. Those 9 points have kept our head above water, and we should be thankful of that at least. On top of that, our record in home games for the past 6 months is nothing short of relegation certainties I would wager, with perhaps only Sunderland’s proving worse.

    It is critical that the team create opportunities – its probably impossible to accurately compare, but the performances feel very ‘Sanchez-esque’ at the moment, where every game felt like we comfortably created half as many opportunities as our opponents, regardless of the quality. The irony is that it would also appear that our creative & attacking options are as ‘full’ as they have been at any stage since perhaps the Saha/Boa Morte days, but we’re really struggling to create opportunities, suggesting the balance isn’t right – playing too many like minded players in the forward area perhaps (Ruiz + Berbatov) when a combination of Bent/Rodagella + Ruiz/Berbatov is perhaps more likely to generate success?

    And it’s also critical – even more so this weekend at Anfield – that we adopt a better shape without the ball, and head the lessons from the Southampton debacle. This season Jol seems to have focused on having more attacking players on show at any one time, particularly when away from home, whereas last season we had several good performances in the early part of the season playing more of a 4-5-1 style formation. I certainly recall games at the Bridge (0-0) and Emirates (3-3) where we had a midfield trio – Diarra, Sidwell, Karagounis/Ruiz – that meant we kept good shape, were tougher to breakdown and kept the ball better. Key within this were the Benitez-esque two deeper lying midfielders, and one of the three ‘pressing’ from midfield. To your point Rich, Jol appears to have good options in here – with Boateng & Karagounis potential options to add to Parker – Sidwell axis.

    It will be interesting to see how he approaches this weekend, but you get the feeling the next two games are building up a significant & potentially decisive importance – good performances & points will see the status quo remain; poor performances & result would result in a twitchy boardroom you would imagine, particularly as Norwich are in a comparable position creating competition for replacement options. Despite the noises coming from Khan & Co, I can’t seriously believe the board have not started investigating a plan B given the standard of performance they’ve been witnessing since around February/March time.

  4. I’m definitely on board with Boateng in there to shield the back four (or Sidwell or Parker if they can be instructed and trusted to do so).

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