Fulham go moneyballing for gold

Football and analytics fight!

This has been going on forever in baseball, so no shock to see it happening here, now, either.  Worse, much of what the likes of Bill James discovered in the 70s and 80s was more or less indisputable, but it still took until relatively recently for his ideas to take hold.  Now all baseball teams (it really is all now, I think) embrace analytics, looking for an edge anywhere they can find it.

Football is harder.  Anyone unconvinced with the whole notion will tell you that: instead of discrete batter v pitcher matchups, football is a fluid game with indefinite happenings.  Chain reactions abound. There’s more noise than… not noise.  It’s a minefield, it really is.  But still, you look for edges where you can find them, right? Better to spend £250k on a middle of the road midfielder from Slovakia than £2m for a middle of the road midfielder from Leeds.  If you can pull it off.

Anyway, much excitement on twitter over this recent piece.  I won’t go into the details, but what fascinates me is what the powers that be can have seen in Madl and Mattila in the first place.

Now, we can’t retro-fit these two at all.  The data that must be in use is not in the public domain as best I can tell, so we must go top-down (e.g. look at a team level).  I don’t think this is the worst idea, anyway: after all, a top down approach means you’re looking at what happened to the team the player played in.  It takes a brave man to see a poor defensive side and decide that there’s a centre-back in there who’s doing a fabulous job.

So…

I can’t see anything.  Have a look at these numbers, which are the games Mattila played in before we signed him.

Mattila.png

This is what I’m getting at.  Here we have a team that, in 2015, was beaten by five goals twice and four goals twice.  Now that could be a systematic failure from any number of perspectives, but from an analytics POV, what can you see in there that makes you think a defensive midfielder is worth a punt?  He’s making lots of tackles?  I bet he is! His team’s being attacked relentlessly.  He passes well?  Maybe, but if so he must be a lone beacon of positivity in what seems to be a very poor side.  We know, we think, that even the best players are only worth a few points over an average player a season, so it’s possible he has been playing brilliantly, but using a top-down viewpoint at least, it’s a mess, to the point where I’d be nervous about unpicking an individual’s contributions.

The sensible retort might be that the team has used several years of data, which I hope is the case.  The comeback might be that he’s bounced around from team-to-team for a while, only settling in his recent stint at Aalesund, which itself is confusing.  There must have been pedigree there or Udinese wouldn’t have bought him in the first place (they are scouting masters), but after that, nobody seems to have been convinced.  A true diamond in the rough if he works out.  From here, it’s hard to see.

Michael Madl is half-similar: he’s come from a team (Sturm Graz) that appears to have been comfortably top half for the last couple of seasons.  They’ve scored and conceded goals at a perfectly normal rate in the last couple of seasons.  So what do we take from that?

Madl

This uses standard deviations to unpick where a team’s strength lies.  I can see here that Sturm Graz have been a better defensive side than might initially have been guessed: they were a pretty good side in 2014-15, and much of that was because they had the second best defensive team in the league.  Now, sometimes there’s an alarm bell around this, because the attacking play isn’t all that.  What it could mean is that this is just a team that sets itself up defensively (e.g. keep men behind the ball even in possession): goals dry up and so any top-down measure will make defenders look good and attackers less so.   This could be what we see here, as the Sturm Graz games have been among the lowest scoring in the league for the last couple of seasons, implying more closed, cagey games.

All of which is a long way to say that I really don’t know.   Madl, I can see, maybe there’s a sniff of something, and if Fulham got Opta numbers to probe further maybe they did see that Madl’s leading a defence that is perhaps a bit better than average in Austria.  It’s a reach though.   As noted from the outset, it’s very hard to unpick an individual contribution from his team’s performance, and there’s nothing I can see (which doesn’t mean much, of course!) that suggests we might be on to some kind of dynamite.

The key here is scouting.  If the club have enough analytically to peer deeper, watch the player a few times, then that’s fabulous, and hopefully what’s happened.  Otherwise, well, your guess is as good as mine.

We do know that previous signings have had an analytical ‘calling card’, e.g. the key passing acquisitions of the summer, and to an extent Ream and Stearman doing their thing (what was it, blocks?  I can’t remember), so perhaps it’s as simple as that: they’ve found players who, in ways I can’t see, are statistical outliers, and, at lowish cost, have taken a punt.  Time will tell.

Roy Hodgson book now on Amazon

Hi

Still here.  I will write more soon.

I just wanted to give a heads up: my Roy Hodgson book is now available as a paperback on Amazon.  It’s a proper paperback format, and I’m pleased with how it’s come out.

The link’s here: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Roy-Hodgson-Football-biography-Englands/dp/1499640773/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1454240532&sr=8-2&keywords=roy+hodgson

The initial self-published paperbacks sold out, so this is your chance.  I’ve re-read it, and I think it still stands up quite well.

cpver

Thoughts on the QPR thrashing

A win that raises all sorts of questions.

What is the modern Fulham? The team that crushed QPR 4-0? Or the team that has been beyond ordinary for as long as we can remember?

Realistically you have to err on the side of caution, but just as there were reasons to be negative before, there were plenty of reasons to be cheerful on Friday too.

I think this was a crucial win in this respect. Few of us, I suspect, felt that the team had this kind of performance in them. That being so, where did it come from?

1) Ryan Tunnicliffe is not as good a footballer as some of the recent centre-midfield candidates, but he has a role and he sticks to it. Without overplaying this, a few of us have been moaning about this for ever. Football is a team game and sometimes you need less talented players to make the overall unit function. Tunnicliffe showed glimpses of this in a couple of very disciplined and restrained performances under Renee Meulensteen, and it’s been pleasing to see him used now. So merely accepting the need for a player like Tunnicliffe feels like a big thing.

2) I recently read the latest Secret Footballer book, and there were a couple of interesting parts in particular. In one, the player – Dave Kitson we believe – talked about how fans are overly impressed by players who throw themselves around, but not by players who show real bravery, trying the difficult pass that has high rewards but which, when it’s not successful, leads to groans from the crowd. For whatever reason – and it might be just how QPR defended – the players seemed somehow bolder. I think it helps having a genuine playmaker like Jamie O’Hara in the side. O’Hara – and I was quite wrong about this – isn’t just about the spectacular for the sake of it. There’s an intelligence to his play that opens up opportunities. I think perhaps that confidence spreads to his teammates.

3) alright, let’s be honest, the back four is new and improved and this makes everyone else better too. Whatever the merits of those no longer playing, it must be said that Ream and Stearman have a steadying influence on the middle of the pitch, and the full-backs are on another planet altogether. James Husband looked good last year and has continued this. He just gets it. He seems – for this level – to have just the right kind of mentality for a full-back, good instincts, good decision making. The covering across in the second half, where he ended up sweeping up on the other side of the field, was a good example here. I don’t know how the Garbutt situation will play itself out but Fulham have the player they need, and while full-backs aren’t typically very exciting to those making transfer offers, we’ve all seen how hard it is to get good ones. Just make a deal, Fulham.

4) I don’t know if Ryan Fredericks can defend but if he can he’s too good for this level.

5) I confess to having had my doubts about Dembele. I thought I was seeing an age group bully, someone whose physical attributes made him a destroyer down the teams but unlikely to figure out the professional game. Of all our young players I was least impressed with him. Like all of us, I like to think I can spot a player, but clearly missed big here. He was immense on Friday and played an intelligent game in partnership with McCormack. And you can see plenty of room for improvement, too.

QPR were pretty awful but Fulham were excellent. One swallow doesn’t make a summer, but just showing that we have this kind of performance in us is enough to bring about some optimism.

Reasons to be cheerful

I am miles behind on watching the games, but here are some reasons to be happy:

  1. I’m about halfway through Hull but it seemed immediately obvious to me that Hull are a Premier League team playing in the Championship.  Not literally a Premier League team, they’ve lost some players I imagine, but they had something about them that isn’t always evident at this level.  In that sense, losing there was rather like the old losing away in top division used to be: mildly disappointing but overwhelmingly the thing most likely to have happened.  Seen in that light, our start to the season isn’t maybe as bad as it felt at the time.  This said, I haven’t watched Huddersfield yet so there’s that.
  2. Being unbeaten in three games is a fine thing to happen.  Whatever the shortcomings of Kit Symons, teams playing with confidence can achieve a good deal.  I’ve long felt that the current squad is better than popularly realised; if they play without fear then there’s a chance to do something in this division.
  3. Particularly with Alan Curbishley sitting in his Motspur Park Volcano plotting devious things.  Look, I’m not saying he’s any kind of messiah, but he’s been around the game long enough to know what’s what.  He’s a bright man.  I think part of the frustration early in the season was a general feeling (I’m sorry for what I’m about to say) that Kit Symons might not have had the wherewithal to organise the team, to iron out failings etc.  But with Curbishley around we can feel more confident that the right things are being addressed in the right way.
  4. And we have new players.  I am perplexed that we still don’t seem to have the destroying midfielder we so badly need, but against that our midfield is full up and talented, so maybe we don’t need one.  We have decided that part of the issue with the defence is personnel and brought in some personnel who have a track record of performing.  As Ben Weeks noted on twitter, Ream and Stearman were both good statistically in the past, the latter I think particularly strong in blocking shots. And if there’s any single thing this team needs it’s someone to make opposing shots a little less straightforward.   It also adds to a bewildering collection of recent fans’ player of the year award winners, which suggests that the players we have are the kinds that supporters can get behind, but also who won’t shirk responsibility, this being a big part of fans’ evaluations, I suspect.  Which can only be a good thing.
  5. We’re probably okay then.  People want pace up front but I don’t think any team is ever ‘one player away’ from anything.  Dwight Gayle would have been lovely but his absence doesn’t change much, not really.  If the defence gets better, if O’Hara maintains what even I have to admit has been a scintillating start, and if Ross really does get to play centre-forward, I still think this team can contend.  I really do.

Selling the farm

More news about a young player we’ll never really see.

A source close to the situation divulged on Tuesday afternoon that the 19-year-old will be allowed to leave Craven Cottage for training-only stints with prospective buyers as the Championship season unfolds. It is in this manner that he can choose his next employer.

The 19 year old is Emerson Hyndman, who actually looked pretty capable in the team’s engine room under Magath, has shown composure beyond his years, and is now certain to go somewhere else.

It’s probably too soon to mark this down as ‘an alarming trend’, but equally, we had high hopes for this generation of Fulham youngsters and one by one they’re all disappearing.

The article above notes that Fulham have offered a new deal to the player, but, just as happened with Patrick Roberts, have little power in the situation with the contract on the verge of expiring.  I appreciate that it’s easy to sit here and criticise things that are presumably much harder to control than we might ever imagine, BUT it’s dismaying to see another talented player about to leave.  Dan Burn can go in the summer, so too can Moussa Dembele, and Lasse Vigen Christensen can be off a year later.

Part of me wishes the club had done what Magath actually tried to do, namely commit to youth. We all saw how dangerous a tactic that could have been, but in many ways it’s hard to disentangle the general idea from the executioner of this idea: could someone like Dario Gradi have made this approach work?

You can build a team any way you like, but if you’re somehow able to grow one from within then there’s a suspicion that somehow this is a better thing, that this leads to better outcomes.  In a parallel universe out there is a team that’s competing for the 2019-20 Premier League title, with grizzly veteran David Stockdale in goal, twin pillars Burn and Burgess (together as a pairing for 5 seasons) at the heart of the defence, and Hyndman and LVC running games from the middle of the park.  Patrick Roberts is unstoppable on the wing, and Woodrow and Dembele are almost telepathic by now.

No, I know.  This couldn’t and wouldn’t have happened, but it’s a future that’s within the realms of the dreamable, a path the club might have taken, a path that could scarcely have been worse than the one the club *did* take, and one that would have united the fan base for some time.  Everyone likes to see the kids getting a chance, and a home-grown team would have felt special.

Naive, nonsensical, I know, I know.  But every time one of these gifted young players leaves the club for not much we’re reminded of the extent to which the whole organisation has made an absolute dog’s dinner of the last few seasons.  It’s been beyond shambolic.

Fetch Dan Burn

The race against time is a plot device beloved of many film makers.

Who can forget Crocodile Dundee, in which Mick is on his way out of town, only for Sue to realise what she’s about to lose. She gets to the station in double quick time but has to relay her message to Mick via other passengers, so crowded is the concourse. Memorably, she shouts “I’m not going to marry Richard!” and this message is bounced along the platform and Mick gets it and changes his mind.

In fact I even saw an example of this yesterday, in Hotel Transylvania, when Count Dracula had to chase down an aeroplane containing the man his daughter had fallen for, a man driven away by the Count’s attempts to do exactly this: make him leave! Of course the Count realised he had made a mistake, but it was very nearly too late to rectify the situation. In the end he had to catch up an aeroplane then trasmit a message over the flight’s intercom by effectively ‘possessing’ the pilot. But it worked, so.

(Note: I can’t convey this easily here as photos aren’t backing me up, but Dracula looked a lot like Rene Meulensteen).

383-HotelTransylvania1

And so on. There are millions of examples, most requiring the retrieval of a person of a person ‘on his way’ following the realisation that a mistake has been made.

Here’s another: Dan Burn is, as we speak, being talked about as a potential signing for Sheffield United. If this is true – if there’s any truth to it – Tony Khan needs to get on the phone, get on an aeroplane, just do something, to stop it. Burn is young, has played quite well, and statistically looks reasonable (whoscored had him as our best player last year, and we found in deeper analysis that only LCV and Ruiz were more important to Fulham).  He won’t peak for a while.  And we shouldn’t just keep giving away our youngsters.

Building from within

The Swiss Ramble is always a good read, but this profile of Ipswich Town contained an interesting nugget:

To that end, Evans initially provided his managers with enough funding to be competitive in the transfer market, but this did not achieve the desired objective, as the owner explained: “You would have hoped that money had resulted in better things, but look at Nottingham Forest – they lost £25 million last year and got nowhere. Look at Leicester, they spent 25 to 30 million for a couple of years running, I think, and didn’t manage to get promoted. So there are a lot of clubs out there that spent a lot more than Ipswich did and who ended up in exactly the same situation.”

This led to a change in Evans’ strategy, “I wanted to work with a manager who was going to try to and coach and make our players better, rather than give the manager the opportunity (to simply buy players).” The drive to more sensible cost management was also influenced by the introduction of the Financial Fair Play rules, which essentially force clubs to live within their means.

As a result Ipswich have spent virtually nothing on player purchases in the last three seasons, but paradoxically this approach has delivered better results on the pitch, thus defying the conventional wisdom that high spending equates to success. Whether the reliance on free transfers and bringing through young players will continue to work is debatable, but the recent improvement is there for all to see.

Ross McCormack scoring goals

One for the “no sht, Sherlock” file.

“It’s similar to last year in that it took a little while to get going, but I had a good chat with the Manager on Sunday and just said that when I came to the Club I was a striker and I think it’s best if I can get back to that, being in and around the box.

“So I’m pleased that I was up front in the cup and I got two goals to repay that faith. When I’ve been playing in the hole in behind strikers then it’s my job to come deep and link the play, but I feel a lot better when I’m further up the pitch and I’m around the box, as the second goal showed. When you’ve got the chance to come inside and get shots away and stuff, I feel a lot more comfortable.”

As a reminder, in the past McCormack has had seasons where he’s scored 21, 18, 28 and 17 goals in the league.

Think about it this way: by taking him out of the position where he’s doing this, are you confident that his “link up play” will be sufficiently productive cover this goals shortfall? If your option is McCormack behind Smith or someone else behind McCormack, you don’t just go with the former to fit Smith into the side.  You put your star player where he’ll do most good for the team. The game is about scoring goals and not conceding goals. Everything stems from these two things. You don’t deliberately inhibit your options for doing this without good reason.

Manager personalities

While I catch up on video (currently watching Hull game), a brief note I’ve been meaning to post for a while about how Kit Symons got a bit of a boost post-Magath.

The below is taken directly from the Bill James Guide to Baseball Managers. I believe this to be absolutely true.  The team probably had the right idea in hiring Magath, but got the wrong version of high pressure. Kit was in some ways exactly what the club needed after Magath, but the board/committee/whoever may have (probably did) err in misjudging the improved results that followed.

managers1

managers2

managers4

T:Ream – Things can only get better

Sorry.  It was that obvious.  I couldn’t not.

Tim Ream joins, and re-establishes Fulham’s link with American players, and let’s face it, it’s been a fruitful link.

Hurray.  He’s been supporters’ player of the year twice and plays for America.  He looks like a CB, and is 6’1′, but people understandably want him to be a left-back.  But I think really he isn’t.

Meanwhile, in the manager’s press conference, Kit Symons says that he can’t quite work out how we haven’t earned more points.  That would be a function of being outplayed in three games, relying on flukes and worldies for our own goals, and generally not being able to defend for opponents’.  Yes, we could very easily have shambled our way to at least 7 points by now, but that would be papering over cracks that probably need to remain exposed lest some kind of Crystal Palace/Kasami effect happen for a second time.