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