Author Archives: rich

Gone fishing: Fulham looking for chance creators

There’s a story, in his first autobiography I think, how Sir Alex Ferguson sold Jaap Stam in part because his tackling stats were declining. Then someone pointed out that Paulo Maldini’s tackling stats were non-existent. The lesson learned here is that using tackling numbers to evaluate defenders doesn’t really tell you much. It feels like it should, but the best defenders rarely have to tackle. Defending is about so much more.

Then remember when Liverpool were taken over by the owners of the Boston Red Sox. They had a director of football who had read Moneyball and proceeded to buy Andy Carroll (£35m), the most dominant aerial presence in the Premier League, but also Jordan Henderson (£16m), Charlie Adam (£7m) and Stewart Downing (£20m), who between them had created 239 chances the season before, a dominant number that suggested Liverpool would probably go bananas the next season. They didn’t, and the signings were widely regarded as a letdown. Sure, Henderson has come good, but was actually made available to Fulham soon after signing.

chances

Fulham have signed one of these players, been strongly linked with another, and are rumoured to have ‘done dealed’ a third.

Is this what Fulham mean by taking an analytical approach to recruitment?  I’m not saying it’s a bad thing, just observing.

On crosses

This talks about something I’ve (I think?) been banging on about for ages.  Crossing can be a really inefficient way to attack.horror+of+dracula+end

I think the part missing here is that wide play in attack is essential.  Somehow you need to find space to attack in, otherwise your shots will be blocked, charged down, etc.

Stone_goal_Eng_Switz_9511-1

I remember years ago I went to see England at the Old Wembley.  Steve Stone was playing.  We were sitting in the right back area and got quite angry at how slow the full-back (Gary Neville) was to shuffle across.  Now, this anger was based on ignorance – Neville was deliberately leaving this space vacant so he could remain compact in the middle of the pitch with his co-members of the back four.  But I remained stunned at how much space the team was leaving in wide areas.  Of course, when danger arrived the team would close down the space – they were fine – but the point here is that in closing this space they were leaving space somewhere else.

And that’s what you want as an attacking team.  You have to create space.  Defensive teams want to minimise space, so they actively want you to try to attack an area where there are most people.  That might mean funnelling teams into the crowded area on the edge of the area, or it might mean something else: either way, the game’s about space and controlling this space.

This is one area Fulham have been awful at since Hodgson/Hughes.  In the relegation season the team’s let opponents do more or less what they wanted to, while doing nothing much going the other way in mitigation.   Anyway, my point here is that in the wrong hands, crossing can be a sort of act of last resort.

Under Hodgson the team work in tandem: so if we did cross there would be a point to it.  I remember the goal we scored against Reading in the Great Escape season:

Roy said that they’d been working on crossing in the week, and sure enough, it worked. But what Roy meant was that they’d have worked on pre-determined moves, how to create space wide, how to make runs that drag defenders away, how to get on the end of things.  Crossing should be part of a pre-ordained plan of attack, not something you do because it’s a bit crowded in the middle and you haven’t thought of something else.

Patrick Roberts, young players, and how to develop them properly

paper

Let’s suppose I want to become an expert at throwing screwed up balls of paper into my bin.

If I sit next to the bin and hold the paper above the bin, I can be fairly sure I’ll hit my target just by opening my fingers and letting the paper fall downwards.

That takes little skill on my part.

Okay, I need to make this a bit harder. If I move my chair a foot away from the bin, now I have to actually throw the paper. I played a bit of basketball and have kept my eye in throwing my daughter’s nappies across our kitchen into a bin, so this isn’t a big deal for me. BUT I have enough self awareness to appreciate that this is no longer going to be automatic. Occasionally I’m going to miss.

If I move back another foot I’m going to get even less reliable.

If I get bored of the whole thing and want to be Steph Curry I can get off my chair and walk a few more feet away. All of a sudden I’m going to keep missing. Missing will be the norm. I can keep trying but I’m still going to keep missing. My technique’s going to go to pieces and it’s basically going to be random. I’ve tried too much, too quickly.

No, the real approach to becoming a paper-to-bin assassin is to take small steps. Master the drop, master the shot from a foot away, master the shot from two feet away, gradually build up the difficulty. I might struggle from 5 feet if I try too quickly, but not if I’ve just spent a week mastering a shot from 4 feet.

during the Capital One Cup fourth round match between Fulham Derby County at Craven Cottage on October 28, 2014 in London, England.

during the Capital One Cup fourth round match between Fulham Derby County at Craven Cottage on October 28, 2014 in London, England.

Now imagine if I went from 1 foot to 10 feet away, and also had lots of distractions. Suddenly there’s a lot of noise around me. Maybe someone keeps kicking me while I’m trying to perform. Maybe someone else is jumping up and saying boo right in front of my face. You’re asking me to go from a foot away to 10 feet away, with all this going on? Honestly? I don’t think my technique’s going to stand up to this. Sure, if I’m a freak I might be able to rise above it, but realistically I need to build up to this test. Get me shooting reliably from 10 feet then get someone kicking me. Hopefully my technique stands up to the stresses.

Remembering Jan Lastuvka

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 9: Jan Lastuvka of Fulham during the Barclays Premiership match between Liverpool and Fulham at Anfield on December 9, 2006 in Liverpool, England. (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND – DECEMBER 9: Jan Lastuvka of Fulham during the Barclays Premiership match between Liverpool and Fulham at Anfield on December 9, 2006 in Liverpool, England. (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

Remember Jan Lastuvka? In what must have been 2007 there were rumours that Fulham were in the market for a backup goalkeeper and I think they came quite close to signing a reasonably good Croatian (Stiple Pletikosa?). That fell through and instead came Jan Lastuvka, who, we later learned, appealed to Chris Coleman because he could kick the ball a long way.

Fulham fans didn’t take to Lastuvka. He seemed uncertain, which is something you shouldn’t seem if you want to be a goalkeeper. Also he could be slow getting down to shots. My memory isn’t what it was, but were Fulham playing Spurs when Lastuvka let a slow, piddling shot roll across him into the far corner, possibly in injury time, possible to surrender a winning position?

Checks.

Yes. Okay, so he played against Liverpool when Fulham lost 4-0, then against Blackburn when Fulham lost 2-0, then wasn’t used again until Antti Niemi had that horrible accident.

That game finished 0-0, but next we drew 3-3 with West Ham, had the aforementioned draw against Spurs, then after beating Newcastle (in the Bullard game), we lost at Bolton and against Manchester United, the latter after Cristiano Ronaldo skated off down the wing and beat Lastuvka with an angled drive that in retrospect might have been saved. It added up to a 15 concessions in seven starts reign of terror and a general feeling that something had gone wrong in our scouting department. Yes, he was behind a back four that might on any given day have gone Rosenior, Knight, Pearce, Quedrue, but you can’t concede two goals a game and get away with it (as we since proved).

While everyone was getting angry at Lastuvka, I was worried about him. What could his day-to-day life be like? Here he was in a new country and his team were reluctantly relying on him and he wasn’t doing very well. That must have felt pretty awful. True, to ascend to the heights of professional sport you do need a thick skin and an ability to put mistakes behind you, but new countries and new clubs are tricky propositions. Once you get the vibe that nobody rates you, it must make for a fairly uncomfortable life.

Thing is, he did have a pedigree. He’d won the Czech league and appears to have received a ‘young player of the year’ award. Later he was Petr Cech’s backup in the Czech Republic team, and in September 2011 he started in a 2-2 draw with Scotland.

He also spent time at West Ham in 2008, playing a single game:

“An own goal by Hayden Mullins consigned West Ham to an early Carling Cup exit at the hands of Watford. The winner came when Hammers keeper Jan Lastuvka missed an Lee Williamson free-kick, which then struck Mullins and trickled over the goal-line.”

He went back to play in Ukraine and, as best I can tell, was well nigh unbeatable in various runs in the Dnipro goal. In 2009/10 he seems to have conceded 14 in 17 games. In 2010/11 14 in 20. In 2011/12 26 in 27. So, you know, he could function as a good goalkeeper in context.

In think the latter is key. I read somewhere, it must have been either Malcolm Gladwell or someone of his ilk, that the best students in American schools are better off going to universities where they’ll be the best student there, rather than somewhere like Harvard. I think the finding, and I’m getting this wrong I think, was that the top students at minor universities publish more academic papers than do the lower students at the top universities, even though the latter group are theoretically starting from a higher level and are going to a better school. There’s something about being a big fish in a small pond that works well for most people; we like to feel that we’re at the top, doing well, that things are going our way. So when he returned to play in Ukrain Lastuvka could get out of bed feeling like a pretty damn good goalkeeper. He could walk around the training ground with a spring in his step. He could star down opposing forwards and think “not today, sunshine.” He could feel invincible.

Jan Lastuvka was lucky to get just the right chances at just the right times, and as he sits back and reflects on his career he’ll be able to tell anyone who’ll listen about the time Ronaldo skinned the entire Fulham team and blasted that rocket into the far corner of his goal, about the packed house at St James’ Park where you could see fans almost up in the sky, and about that thrilling 3-3 draw at Upton Park when he was so happy he skidded on his knees before the Fulham fans in celebration, screaming with happiness. What a moment. What a career.

Mike Rigg

Mike-Rigg]

A bit of googling is quite instructive here, isn’t it?  I’m not saying he’s going to be the answer – how can we know – but he seems to be a thoroughly modern football man.

A Mark Hughes man, too, interestingly enough.

This is interesting, for instance:

* Built up a 30-strong worldwide scouting network, enabling the club to spot players early and establish good contacts with other clubs and associations to ease transfers.

* Creates detailed dossiers on target players, covering everything from psychological make-up to performances at home and away against tough and weak opposition. The security of a player’s background and family is important. Took advice from the Miami Dolphins NFL team.

* Keeps an information bank to help players acclimatise in Manchester. Mark Hughes told Rigg how when he signed for Barcelona in 1986 they offered him a contract but no help on accommodation or acclimatisation. At City, it was established which area of Manchester would suit David Silva and what Mario Balotelli’s favoured recreations might be.

My sense is that someone who had scaled the heights at Manchester City and landed a plum FA role wasn’t going to come to Fulham just because he liked the idea of a wooden grandstand.  I think he’s going to be running the show, and that Kit Symons’ slightly sheepish interview reflected this.  (“Kit, you can either be our manager on these terms or you can be our ex-manager on these terms”).

Gazza on TiFF, whose opinions I find suspect but whose info is usually sound, says that Rigg is rubbing some up the wrong way, but presumably that’s part intentional and part a function of overhauling a sorry first team environment.

Mainline Menswear golf competition

Mainline Menswear have decided to give one lucky winner the chance to get tickets to the British Open golf in July, including weekend accommodation in Edinburgh.

If nothing else it’s totally worth it to visit Edinburgh.  They also have a second place prize – of £500 worth of Lyle and Scott clothing – and a third place prize – £300 worth of Lyle and Scott clothing – the best golfing brand out there by miles.

Watch this for more details:

More details here.

Too old, too young: Fulham and player peak ages

A man named Michael Caley has used Opta data to plot the percentage minutes of Premier League games played by people of each age.  If you think football is a halfway efficient market (managers are generally picking their best players) then this should be extremely interesting.

CGfX0DoXEAAaAAt

So: just 2% of Premier League minutes were played by midfielders of 33 or over.  Why?  Presumably because the demands of the position are such that you simply can’t cut it at that age.   Hmmm.

The other thing is that Fulham clearly went a bit far with the ‘bring in the kids’ movement last season.  You need a groundswell of players between 23 and 27 and that, for a long time actually, has been a huge blind-spot for Fulham.

Anyway, here are the players who are of ‘about the right age':

24 Shaun Hutchinson
23 Dan Burn
22 Ryan Tunnicliffe
23 Alex Kacaniklic
28 Ross McCormack
25 Matt Smith
21 Sean Kavanagh
20 Lasse Vigen Christensen
23 Marcus Bettinelli

Whether these players are good enough is another story, but the point is that Fulham ought to be picking players of this kind of age profile.

For the sake of certain readers, no, I am not suggesting you pick players based on how old they are.  I am suggesting that players of a certain age are most likely to be contributing to a successful team, and that if you stray too far outside these norms you may be in danger of picking players who are on the downside of their careers, whose reputations may be greater than their abilities (you want the opposite!).

Back the manager

svious

This is good on the off field stuff but at no point did the club sell us on Kit Symons. Symons didn’t sell himself really, other than some fluff about being stronger for going through the adversity.

I remember hearing Rio Ferdinand being interviewed during a World Cup. His point was that despite all indicators to the contrary, England would thrive with their “backs to the wall” and come through when it matters. Of course nothing of the sort happened.

I don’t know what I expect them to say but other than “Kit got a tough assignment and so we owe him another opportunity” what am I to believe in here?

Norwich City brought in a new manager last season. Alex Neil had no celebrity in the English game but what he did have was a track record, albeit a brief one, of winning football matches. Norwich, under Neil, were phenomenal. They were promoted.

I’m not saying anything new here, I appreciate, and I do understand Rigg’s comment about the need for stability, but I think they might have done more here in reassuring us on Symons. Fine, maybe there’s a good atmosphere about the place, lovely, terrific, but where do we get reassurance that Kit will stop the team from conceding 100 goals next season? We have to infer that this will happen because Rigg and the clever committee will go about things the right way in identifying talent (and I get this, and believe them, to a degree). But still your manager has to impose something on the team.

We have to keep an open mind and I’m sure a mid table finish is likely here, but with all the excellent questioning from Sarah Brookes, we might have seen a bit more in our respondents’ replies. Back the manager properly, tell us about things he’s done in the past that suggest he can manage a football team. Because otherwise it’s still a leap of faith, which feels dangerous, especially when there are probably managers out there who can offer a greater degree of reassurance through their own CVs.

Unless the club doesn’t think the manager matters that much…

I don’t know what it means, but…

tweaks

This looks at points per game depending on how Kit Symons changed his team.  So in games where we were unchanged under Symons Fulham averaged 0.7 points per game.  In games where we made 1-2 changes we averaged twice as many points.  In games where he made three changes we did better yet, averaging 1.7 points.

I doubt that the differences between the top bars are significant, but there’s something afoot at the bottom.   The same applies when we look at performance v expectation (per previous posts): with no changes the team does worse against opponents than you might hope.  When he made 1-3 changes the team did okay.  (this time, an overhaul caused us to underperform slightly).

Put in language that people might understand, we were unchanged seven times and only won once, 3-2 against a Forest team which pretty much battered us.

In our best games, Bettinelli, Bodurov, Staflylidis, LVC, Parker, Ruiz, McCormack played in all.

I don’t think this has really helped much.

Trying to rank the players

NB – please try to take this in the spirit it’s intended: I’m exploring.  Trying to see where I can get.

You may recall that recently I tried to find a way to objectively assign credit to a football team’s players based on the team’s overall performance. I ran this through the Leeds United team of 1972-73 and was happy enough with the conclusions.

The method is driven by a simple enough ‘engine': in each game, did Fulham perform better against an opponent than would be expected given that opponent’s record across the season? Or worse.

It’s calculated as follows: say Fulham played a team that averaged 10 goals a game and kept a clean sheet. Whoever played in that match would get a +10 for that game defensively, as this attacking giant was kept quiet. If Fulham scored 10 and our team averaged a clean sheet then they’d get +10 there, too, for a total of +20.

If Fulham had lost 10-0 then this would have been a zero, as Fulham kept the opponent exactly to their seasonal average.

We add up the totals for the season and see which players played when opposing teams were kept above or below seasonal tallies.

Phil Magnus took my Leeds spreadsheet and filled in the latest Fulham season. If we apply the above literally we get the following ranking of players:

Christensen
Ruiz
Burn
Bettinelli
Rodallega
Stafylidis
Parker
Hoogland
McCormack
Hutchinson
Bodurov
Tunnifcliffe

This is all players who played 20 games or more. Which is to say that the team performed MUCH better with Christensen in the side than without him, and a fair bit worse with Tunnicliffe in the side than without him.

Okay, the elephant in the room is McCormack, who played so much he had to take one for the team, which is to say that we couldn’t get a with or without you for McCormack because there’s no without you part. He’s largely alone in this, although Betinelli (39 games) does well because Kiraly and Joronen had bad happenings when he was absent.

Among non-qualifiers Elsad Zverotic (5 games) was actually top, having played his part during a relatively unspectacular but almost unbeaten run halfway through the season. Turner was up there between Ruiz and Burn, and we did okay in games when Richards played. The team did badly in games when Fofana started and also Woodrow, Amorebieta and Hydman (Magath effect!).

I did a second version of this in which defenders got more credit for defensive performance and attackers more credit for attacking performance. So, if we lost a game 6-4 the defenders who played would get fried and the forwards would get credit. That’s probably reasonable enough.

For context, I put these numbers up against Whoscored.com’s ratings and against a subjective view from Mike Gregg, who is good at these things and, I find, takes a balanced approach that neither swings too far towards the ‘populist view’ nor tries to be too contrarian (which I, of course, am prone to do).  These are all rankings. The numbers are meaningless in this context, really:

umbers

RAW is just the pure data: how did the team do when he was playing?  POS is when I adjust this for position played; WS is WhoScored; MJG is Mike.

Hmmm. I think Whoscored is too high on our defenders (top ratings generally going to these people) which can’t be right under the circumstances. Mike’s views, I think, cover a consensus quite well.

So I don’t know. My initial ratings are essentially facts (facts that are open to all kinds of distortion and factors beyond folks’ control, but facts regardless.. kind of): when LVC played, teams did worse against Fulham than they did against all other opponents. Ruiz and Burn had similar impacts (as did Turner later on). You can slice this around a bit to try to account for responsibility and maybe that works, too. Not sure. Clearly I have a way to go here. But the key messages are:

Christensen is really good
Dan Burn did about as well as anyone could in that defence (which is a slightly circular argument, I realise)
But both look like the pillars on which this team needs to be rebuilt
If you take out the Whoscored defensive bias (?) then Hoogland, Hutchinson and Bodurov get panned. Ryan Tunnicliffe doesn’t come out of any of this well.
McCormack was unfairly held back by the raw approach to all this because he played so much, so he must be seen as a success (duh!)
Rodallega’s probably a fair bit better than the fans give him credit for
Parker did okayish