Highway to Fulham’s Danger Zone, Part Deux

About this time last year I wrote about Fulham’s terrible defense, honing in on how many shots in the “Danger Zone” they were conceding.

A refresher: not all shots are created equal, and thus attempting or conceding shots closer to the net is easier for your/their offense to score. Shots further away are more difficult to score. Shots conceded in Zones 1-3 are dubbed the “Danger Zone”. You want to shoot there. You dont want to concede shots there.


(courtesy of Michael Caley)

Well guess what, that’s where Fulham concede a metric shitload of shots!

Note part 1: this data is dated March 20, so it’s slightly out of date, but more importantly it’s courtesy of Ben’s wonderful Stats and Snakeoil Blog. (Thanks Ben!)

Note part 2: I took Ben’s data, and modified it to fit the provided shot locations with Michael Caley’s Shot Matrix zone map. Apologies if I violated a few scientific laws; I’m only a dilettante. Full data can be seen here.

Team Shots For DZ Shots For DZ For %
Birmingham City 479 143 29.9%
Blackburn Rovers 548 243 44.3%
Blackpool 396 129 32.6%
Bolton Wanderers 454 186 41.0%
Bournemouth 593 226 38.1%
Brentford 530 188 35.5%
Brighton and Hove Albion 541 207 38.3%
Cardiff City 449 179 39.9%
Charlton Athletic 377 135 35.8%
Derby County 486 179 36.8%
Fulham 468 161 34.4%
Huddersfield Town 521 176 33.8%
Ipswich Town 536 259 48.3%
Leeds United 406 116 28.6%
Middlesbrough 545 216 39.6%
Millwall 467 159 34.0%
Norwich City 583 204 35.0%
Nottingham Forest 531 217 40.9%
Reading 465 185 39.8%
Rotherham United 496 200 40.3%
Sheffield Wednesday 483 193 40.0%
Watford 521 189 36.3%
Wigan Athletic 439 152 34.6%
Wolverhampton Wanderers 472 175 37.1%
Team Shots Against DZ Shots Against DZ Against %
Birmingham City 569 224 39.4%
Blackburn Rovers 494 195 39.5%
Blackpool 607 218 35.9%
Bolton Wanderers 551 199 36.1%
Bournemouth 435 151 34.7%
Brentford 518 184 35.5%
Brighton and Hove Albion 456 180 39.5%
Cardiff City 500 169 33.8%
Charlton Athletic 560 201 35.9%
Derby County 454 164 36.1%
Fulham 558 234 41.9%
Huddersfield Town 516 192 37.2%
Ipswich Town 475 191 40.2%
Leeds United 554 204 36.8%
Middlesbrough 399 157 39.3%
Millwall 479 192 40.1%
Norwich City 354 122 34.5%
Nottingham Forest 482 160 33.2%
Reading 460 179 38.9%
Rotherham United 503 205 40.8%
Sheffield Wednesday 440 180 40.9%
Watford 510 187 36.7%
Wigan Athletic 423 152 35.9%
Wolverhampton Wanderers 489 177 36.2%
Team DZR DZ Shots +/-
Birmingham City 0.390 -81
Blackburn Rovers 0.555 48
Blackpool 0.372 -89
Bolton Wanderers 0.483 -13
Bournemouth 0.599 75
Brentford 0.505 4
Brighton and Hove Albion 0.535 27
Cardiff City 0.514 10
Charlton Athletic 0.402 -66
Derby County 0.522 15
Fulham 0.408 -73
Huddersfield Town 0.478 -16
Ipswich Town 0.576 68
Leeds United 0.363 -88
Middlesbrough 0.579 59
Millwall 0.453 -33
Norwich City 0.626 82
Nottingham Forest 0.576 57
Reading 0.508 6
Rotherham United 0.494 -5
Sheffield Wednesday 0.517 13
Watford 0.503 2
Wigan Athletic 0.500 0
Wolverhampton Wanderers 0.497 -2

There’s a lot of data, but for this post we’re only going to look at the second table. If you were to sort it by the DZ Shots Against metric you’d see that Fulham have actually conceded the most shots in the Danger Zone in the entire Championship (and on par to eclipse last season)!.

DZ Shots Against Plot

Additionally, whereas just 34% of our shots taken are from the Danger Zone, about 42% of our shots conceded is from the Danger Zone. So nearly half of all shots our opponents are taking are almost from point-blank. As of now there’s not a way to deduct DZ Shots on Target from the overall DZ Shots Against, but regardless that statistic is damning.

In a few hours Fulham travel to Charlton, who boast the worst shot totals, nearly worst DZ Shot totals, 6th worst DZ Shots Against totals, and a worst DZ Ratio than us. Should be a terrible, terrible game.

Matchdays 35-40 and no things aren’t improving

Latest dataset is up courtesy of Owain Thomas’ blog The Only Statistic That Matters, and nope it’s not that pretty.

MATCHDAYS SHOTS FOR SHOTS AGAINST CORSI/TSR SOT TOTAL SOT AGAINST TOTAL
Week 5 77 65 0.542 18 24
Week 10 133 125 0.516 44 44
Week 15 194 206 0.485 68 65
Week 20 272 282 0.491 92 94
Week 25 324 372 0.466 106 118
Week 30 380 470 0.447 127 151
Week 35 451 538 0.456 143 177
Week 40 533 632 0.458 167 220
MATCHDAYS SOT SHARE SHOOTING % FOR SAVE % PDO
Week 5 0.429 16.66 58.33 74.99
Week 10 0.5 27.27 54.55 81.82
Week 15 0.511 32.36 56.91 89.27
Week 20 0.495 32.61 58.51 91.12
Week 25 0.473 33.01 62.71 95.73
Week 30 0.457 33.85 64.91 98.76
Week 35 0.447 32.15 66.66 98.82
Week 40 0.432 30.54 67.27 97.81

There are several warning signs: the immense increase in Shots on Target Against, and the decline of our Shooting %.

sot vs sot against lines

Above we see a major uptick in the SoTA and SoT between matchdays 35-40. How does this happen? Let’s investigate:

Opponent Fulham Shots Fulham SoT Opp Shots Opp SoT
Brentford 16 7 16 8
Huddersfield 10 3 31 13
Leeds 27 8 8 5
Sheffield Wed 14 5 11 4
Bournemouth 19 3 24 11

(Holy shit that Huddersfield game!) In the past five matches Fulham have been averaging 17.2 total shots, 5.2 SoT, 18 shots against, and 8.2 SoTA. That’s worrisome.

Whereas matches 30-35 were all against top 10 opponents, this set was against mid-table oppositions (Bournemouth aside) and was to better show the club’s true standing. And no it’s not great.

But, dig a little deeper. Huddersfield was clearly a statistical outlier (and played with 10 men) and Bournemouth are the best team in the league (and also played with 10 men). The numbers otherwise are quite even if not slightly skewing in our favor. So why the terrible results?

What the Huddersfield and Leeds game show is Variance 101: nine out of ten times Fulham beat Leeds handily, and nine out of ten times Fulham lose to Huddersfield.

Not to mention on another day Fulham might have at least nicked a point from Brentford. The numbers from that, and the Leeds match too, are much more promising than the Bournemouth massacre or the Huddersfield miracle.

Yet that’s why they play the game and we watch. Luck sometimes can even out. No, we’re not a good team by any stretch. But the numbers are showing we’re also not as bad as we may currently seem.

So now, back to data-land, if we stack the difference between SoT and SoTA in each preceding week, we see SoT is keeping pace whereas SoTA is worrisome.

sot total vs sot against total

Regardless, this is having a major impact on our SoT Share, as seen nose-diving below:

SOT Share

Oy vey. Fulham have almost come full circle from where they were under Magath.

Now onto the Shooting % (apologies for the incorrect labels. 1=Week 5, 2=Week 10, etc)

shooting% line

Whereas before Fulham’s Sh% was plateauing within 1.5 points from Matchdays 10-35 (i.e. it wasn’t fluctuating), it recently dipped below 32%, the first time since Kit was named permanent manager.

Unfortunately if you take this all this data and compare it with the club’s rather stable PDO and TSR to date, you come to the conclusion that we’re about where we should be in the table.

pdo tsr graph

Thankfully there are just six matches remaining, with three against teams below us. April 10-18, with home games versus Wigan and Rotherham, and a trip to bottom Blackpool, will be massive.

Not to mention they will be statistically fascinating.

UPDATE: Something I missed in initial post but warrants mentioning: Fulham are leading the league in Shots on Target Against. Yes, 2 more (as of yesterday) than Blackpool. Go about your business.

Scouting for Fulham part 3 – tying it all up

Some of you will have noted my starting with League One in this series. Why?  Well, simple: the method is looking for the very best players by looking at elements of teams that are performing exceptionally well relative to other teams.  Those teams will usually be towards the top of the league, so is it realistic, in our position, to be cherry picking the best players from the best teams? Not at all. But you can probably do that with the best players in League One.

Anyway, all well and good.  But where does this leave us?  A load of names that might or might not lead to anything.  Thing is, we can easily back check the method. It’s a manual process so I’m not about to do to much, but in the interests of validation I’ll do the Championship seasons 2010-11 and 2011-12.

Here’s what the method would have led me too.  In short, it’s effectively an approach that says “Dear Mr Scout: watch x team and pay attention to players in y positions”.  So:

2010-11
Norwich: Grant Holt, Wes Hoolahan
QPR: Kyle Walker
Swansea: Ashley Williams, Neil Taylor, Angel Rangel, Joe Allen

I’m really happy with this group. Holt might not be everyone’s cup of tea but he was certainly effective. Hoolahan’s a terrific player. Any of those Swansea players would have been a big asset to Fulham.

2011-12
Forest: Wes Morgan (now Leicester captain)
Southampton: Rickie Lambert, Adam Lallana
West Ham: Kevin Nolan, Ricardo Vaz Te, Carlton Cole

Same here.  The West Ham cohort will raise the odd eyebrow but these are effective players, and the point here is that the system was looking for the best players in the Championship – it’s hard to argue that these players were not among the best players in the Championship.  The Saints players were clearly legit, and Wes Morgan probably would have represented something of a diamond in the rough.

I’m cherry picking after the fact but not by much. The whole point here is, as noted above, to provide scouts with areas to explore thoroughly. Any scout told to go and watch Southampton and to keep and eye on the forwards would have come back with glowing reports on the above players. Ditto Swansea’s defenders.  It works.

So there’s no reason you couldn’t do this for Sweden, for instance, or Denmark. If I may name drop for a second, while writing my Roy book (four paperbacks left – or find it on Amazon!), Erik Nevland really stressed to me the importance Hodgson and Lewington placed on professionalism, on character.  It’s no coincidence that they dipped into Scandinavia so often.  There’s no reason we couldn’t do this now.  We have a fair idea that the method works in identifying the better players, but we also know that we’d be paying a premium for the kinds of names we’ve been finding.  But dig around in Scandinavia, focus your search on the parts of teams that are excelling in their particular job, scout them intensively (note: you cannot, cannot, cannot, do this kind of thing with analytics only; you need every kind of information available to you, and attempts to create false dichotomies are a waste of brain-space) and see where it leads you.

This isn’t particularly sophisticated analysis, but it’s searching with a point.  Also during my research for the Roy book I found some really good quotes from the WBA chairman, who, after hiring Hodgson and director of football Dan Ashworth, was scathing about how English clubs do business:

“It reached a watershed seven years ago under Bryan Robson when we were bringing in older players who had maybe had their day. I thought to myself: ‘If I’m spending the club’s resource, based upon recommendations made by people who might not be here in a couple of years’ time – for whatever reason – and we are left with those problems, I’d rather make the decision driven by the right methodology rather than on a whim. Basically, if I’m going to make a mistake, I’d rather make it myself.’”

So he went around Europe to see how other clubs did it. They found a role – sporting director – which English clubs really didn’t like, but which European sides felt was all but essential. “They were all looking at England saying: ‘We cannot understand what is going on when we deal with England. The clubs there pay top price, they don’t really check what they are buying.’”

Hmm. If that doesn’t resonate, it certainly should.  This is why there’s a need to think about rigour, about processes, and yes, about backing up some of these decisions with analysis, not just the whims of people who might or might not be good judges.

Look, analytics is a dirty word among football supporters.  But it was among supporters in other sports, and in those sports, the teams that have failed to embrace all available sources of information have fallen behind.  Literally every misgiving you see about statistics on fans’ sites is not a reason not to do this.  Yes, football is complicated, yes you can prove anything with stats, yes you can mis-read stats, but that’s why you have some of the brightest people in the world moving into these fields, to guard against exactly this (against this, Sir Alex Ferguson apparently sold Jaap Stam because he misinterpreted some tackling stats – it happens!).  It’s a slow process, a hard one, and even when clear truisms are being found, getting buy in from the football side of things won’t be easy.  But any forward thinking club needs to do this.  It doesn’t cost much, but the rewards can be great.

Scouting for Fulham part 2

Okay. Well yesterday we used the power of high level analysis to try to find some players. I had to use some quite high level numbers because that’s all I have, but the thinking felt sound: identify teams who do a certain thing extremely well then try to identify which player might be behind this. Did it work? Who knows, but I enjoyed the process, so I’m back again today with the Championship.

I use standard deviations, which is a statistical measure of dispersion: the further away from the average you get the more unusual the skill. Generally speaking, anything over 2 SDs is pretty amazing. So:

champ

Bournemouth are two standard deviations above average in scoring, shooting and getting shots on target. It’s clearly an attacking setup so hard to pull out individuals, but to be fair the defence is doing pretty well too. Looks like a fine all around team, well coached, and unmistakably for real. How do you pick a player or players blind like this? You can’t.

Middlesbrough are two SDs above average in not conceding, and in not allowing shots on target. They are not quite so good in preventing shots overall (still very good) which suggests that teams rarely get a good sight of goal and that there are men behind the ball doing a very effective job. So, as yesterday, we’ll look for players 27 or under who are in the right areas.

George Friend 27D, recently player of the year (12-13), signed from Doncaster (where he was supporters’ player of the year) with Ipswich and Forest wanting him.
Adam Clayton 26M, Manchester City from age of 7, Leeds in the pedigree, England U20, signed from Huddersfield last year, where he had also been that club’s player of the year (someone found 12 minutes worth of highlights!
Ben Gibson 22D North East Writers Player of the Year 2014, up through the ranks
Daniel Ayala 24D much touted as a youngster at Liverpool, now apparently playing extremely well for Boro

Norwich look awesome by these measures, good at scoring and shooting, and hardly allowing anyone to shoot against them (2.5 SD above average). The fact that they are shooting a good amount suggests a near absolute control of football matches.

Bradley Johnson 27DM
Nathan Redmond 21AM
Martin Olsson 26D/M
Jonny Howson 26MC

All of the above have been around the block a bit, playing at the top level and with some plaudits. Redmond well hyped, of course.

Watford don’t shoot that often but do score often. Top finishing or expert chance creation? Either way, some top notch front play.

Troy Deeney 26F has scored at a goal every other game for three years.
Odion Ighalo 25F I’m in love with Ighalo. He looks like a faster Clint Dempsey, apparently capable of scoring any type of goal you might imagine. . From the Udinese talent pipeline.
Matej Vydra 22AM aslo via Udinese, Czech international, another lovely player.

And we can’t do this without mentioning Fulham.  If we were scouting Fulham we’d note that the attacking element is passable but defensively less so, to the point where nobody at all in the division has allowed more shots on target.  That’s terribly damning: not awful in preventing shots overall, but give away really good chances, suggesting attackers not being picked up or closed down.  There’s nothing here that Fulham do well, so as an analyst, searching for hidden value (alright, hardly hidden), you’d take a quick look at those Fulham numbers and move onto the next team without dwelling for long.

Scouting for Fulham

Tony Khan, the owner’s son and statistical head honcho for the Jacksonville Jaguars, crashed into my world this evening via Twitter.

tonykhan

Well.  Given our current status we’re probably going to have to find players from leagues below our own, so that’s hard, because there’s not much data on League One.  Never mind, I thought, let’s see what we can do.

You will by now be aware of the general perception that football is about goals for and against (I’ve prattled on about goal difference being a good indicator for years, yes?) but also worth noting that shots, and particularly shots on target, tend to be even better.  And obviously there are two sides to this coin, those shots you take and those you allow.  So:

SDscores

Hehe. So, what we’re looking at here is how the teams in League One do at scoring, not conceding, shooting, not allowing shots, getting good shots, not allowing good shots.  We then compare the teams to the rest of the league and highlight situations where a team is an outlier.  As an example of this, teams only get one shot on target for every three shots they take against Preston, which is sensational and suggests that it’s almost impossible to get off a clean shot against them.  This could be because of their defence or their midfield, but in any case, it’s what we’ll call a lead.  Below we explore some leads.

Bristol C better (outstanding) F/A than indicators suggest = v strong midfield?  Hard to know though, seem to be excellent everywhere so not clear who to spotlight.

Crewe half of their shots are on target, much better than rest of division.  Suggests creating v good opportunities and/or good forward play. So:

Nicky Ajose 23F Didn’t make it at United, but Ferguson sold to his son Darren at Peterborough suggesting Fergie saw something. On emergency loan from Leeds.
Anthony Grant 27M Chelsea youngster, made first team squad in 2005-06, no appearances.  England U16,U17,U19. Last year made available for loan by manager owing to attitude issues.
Burton+Albion+v+Stoke+City+gDahRnr9aITl

Jamie Ness (above) 24M – young Rangers prospect who had injury issues and who left when the club went into administration.  Signed for Stoke but didn’t break through. Been loaned out to Orient and now Crewe.

What I’m doing here is scouring the team’s stats for players who play regularly in the positions we’re interested in and who are under 27 years of age.  They might be rubbish but you have to start all this somewhere, right?  I’m delighted with my first three stabs, all three players having significant pedigree in the game.

Fleetwood – their opponents need a lot of chances to get one on target. Fleetwood concede many more shots than they take, but similar end up with similar numbers on target. e.g. they are much more efficient.  Suggests perhaps a good counter-attacking team?  Not sure. In any case, they have two young full-backs who seem interesting:
Josh+Morris+Huddersfield+Town+v+Blackburn+hhegno8xEfgl

Josh Morris (above) 23M young left back on loan from Blackburn, where he was well thought of.
Conor McLaughlin 23D young NI international
Antoni Sarcevic 23M Man City youth from 7 to 15, fell away, played non-league, now working his way back up.

Preston have outstanding defence. Almost 3 Standard Deviationss above average for how hard it is to get a shot on target, which is nuts.

Paul Huntington (below) 27D centre-back, former Newcastle player.  I’m going out on a limb here: a centre-back, aged 27, came through with Newcastle, now anchoring one of the toughest defences in League One: I reckon Huntington’s got something going for him.

Paul+Huntington+Preston+North+End+v+Blackpool+0nl-n3eD17Bl
Tom Clarke 27D defender or midfielder, former England youth
Joe Garner (below) 26F – the thing here is that Preston have these insane defensive stats but Garner’s only gone and scored 20 in 29 games. Prolific all his career but hasn’t really stuck. Often a victim of numbers, e.g. signed for Forest for £1m but stuck behind a number of decent options. Worth a punt.

joeg
Bailey Wright (below) 22D Preston young player of the year in 2013. Australian youngster.

Bailey+Wright+Australian+Socceroos+Headshots+P9IMhoSG_WVl

Conclusion

Look, I’m not an idiot.  I know that you can’t just pluck names out of thin air, copy a paragraph from wikipedia and proclaim yourself the Billy Beane of football, but there’s method to the madness.

1) we’re finding teams who are outstanding at a particular facet of their game. This is important: it gives us some assurance that we’re finding players who can do a job.  We’re not being blinded by perceptions, we’re finding defenders who are part of teams who are great at defending, for instance.  We can’t know from here why the teams are so good at defending, but by looking at the defenders who have played most often, not been a sub, etc, we can have a fair guess.  It is only a guess, but an educated one.
2) we seem to have stumbled upon a number of players with a decent pedigree.  This is suggestive of talent, which is a big deal.  It’s very easy for footballers to get lost in senior football, there’s so much luck involved in who makes it and who doesn’t (I really believe that).  So there’s little doubt in my mind that there are gems to be found down the leagues (or how do you explain Bournemouth or Brentford?).  I think this is one way to find them.3) clearly the next step would be to get some qualitative feedback.  That’s exactly what I’ll try to do next.

But I wouldn’t be that surprised if taking this kind of iterative approach to building shortlists might not be the way forward.  As I’ve discussed too many times to mention, our eyes are notoriously poor judges of anything, and if players could be effectively judged this way all managers would agree who the best players are and nobody would make mistakes in the transfer market.  This doesn’t happen.  When you break things down to actual achievement then you’re not letting prejudices blind you; you’re finding defenders who have had success defending.  Which is what you want.  Then of course you have to untangle the information you get, but it’s a start, right?

They’re human too

This is a really good story by the girlfriend of a baseball player.

Are there any more annoying comments from football fans than “for the money he earns he should be able to take it?”/”I pay for my ticket, I have a right to voice my opinion” etc etc.

It seems vaguely ludicrous that football players, by being rich, should somehow be above human concerns.  This article articulates quite well the hurt a player can feel when things don’t go well.

With or without you: Bryan Ruiz

BR1

And you know what?  It doesn’t actually change much even if we exclude the Magath games (goals against av drops to 2 from 2.2).

Interesting, eh?

This isn’t meant to be another “is he any good” provocation, by the way.  Just something I’d wondered about.

Northern Pitch

If you’ve been around here for any length of time you’ll remember Brian Quarstad, who contributed immeasurably to CCN and went on to write the award winning, influential and indispensible Inside Minnesota Soccer site, and Bruce McGuire, an ongoing inspiration in football fandom, blogging, and just in general.  I don’t know that you know much about these fine men but they’ve been very active in the world of Minnesota football for some time.

They’re both kind of a big deal, and I’m delighted to have made their acquaintance. Why would you care about that?  Well, I don’t know, maybe you wouldn’t, but the history and future of football in Minnesota is compelling.

They can tell it better than I but in the last few years their team has evolved considerably: it was the Minnesota Thunder when I first took an interest (hence the Dark Clouds supporters group now) and then the Stars, then United.  They play in the NASL, which is a kind of second tier in the US (there’s no relegation or promotion so it doesn’t quite work that way) and the trick has been that in recent times the team’s future has been somewhat up in the air, not least because the mighty NFL Vikings built a new stadium and threatened to have a soccer element to the site, which would have been annoying on a couple of levels: first, the Vikings could have helped out with soccer in Minnesota many times over the years and haven’t done so, but mainly because this rumoured Minnesota Vikings soccer suggestion would almost certainly have killed off Minnesota United, just as United had started to really be something.

Anyway, you don’t have to care about any of this but there’s a lovely purity to what’s happening in football ‘over there’.  I’m not so naive as to think that it’s really any different to football anywhere else, but Americans tend to do sport well.  So that means amazing stadia, cool logos, and excellent coverage.  No, that’s not what the sport need necessarily be about, but as an armchair fan the ‘product’ (am I even writing this!) tends to be pretty good.  I can get Minnesota United highlights on Youtube pretty damn quickly, for instance.  That counts.

Minnesota United have some great supports, some of whom even put together a Fulham Review style annual last year.  It’s better than anything I ever did, too.

So I dunno.  Lots of Americans have adopted Fulham as their favourite team, so perhaps going the other way we might find it in our hearts to follow Minnesota United.

Oh, I nearly forgot!  The team has just been given notional approval for promotion (agh!) to MLS in the near future.  So the future is secure!

You can read all about this, and much else besides, at Northern Pitch.  I strongly recommend it.

Win Puma trainers

competition-banner

I know our readership extends around the world so perhaps there’s something for everyone here.

To coincide with the launch of the PUMA Trinomic XT1, JD Sports have teamed up with PUMA and five influential magazines for a special competition launching over the next week.

The competition will be operating in five cities: London (18th March), then Bristol, Manchester, LIverpool and New York.

In each city a trainer Krate will be hidden.  Whoever finds it first gets the trainers.  Clues will be given out on the following twitter accounts:

London: @Flavourmag
Bristol: @Wordplaymag
Manchester: @Fluxmagazine
Liverpool: @Halcyonmag
New York: @ComplexMag

So follow the account for your city and get hunting.

http://www.jdsports.co.uk/men/puma-trainers/

To coincide with the launch of the PUMA Trinomic XT1, JD Sports have teamed up with PUMA and five influential magazines for a special competition launching soon.

If you’re the first to find the JD x Puma Krate, snap a selfie and upload it to Twitter, tagging the magazine in your city from the list above, @JDSportsfashion and with the hashtag #JDXPUMA to claim your prize.

Another ramble, this time about Fulham’s lack of attacking purpose

Curiously, I’m going back to the Grantland well.  This is an article I read the other day and is about basketball.  What?  No problem. The point is that in basketball there’s a new emphasis on moving the ball quickly so as to create open three point shots (three point shots being those taken from distance):

NBA teams are increasingly addicted to 3-point shooting. That’s been common knowledge for a while. The feeding of this addiction has changed the way entire offenses are run. Out with the ball-stoppers, in with the ball-movers.

The sneaky thing about NBA 3s is that they demand cooperation. While only 52 percent of the league’s 2-point field goals involve an assist, 84 percent of 3s involve an assist. As the league increases its appetite for long-range shooting, it must also ramp up its passing. Moving the ball has never been more important, and systems that keep the ball in motion effectively have never been more successful.

What does this have to do with anything?

A lot, I think.  I haven’t seen nearly as much of Fulham as I’d have liked this year, but my abiding image is of Ross McCormack taking stupid shots from miles out, shots which would have limited chances of success even if he had a clear sight of goal, which he generally doesn’t have at the time.  And if we cast our minds back, remember Martin Jol’s 4-2-3-1?  The defining experience as a spectator was to sigh with disbelief as the players’ flexible attacking roles led to widespread confusion and a lack of penetration and cohesion.  Ponderous was another word.

A key part of football is, of course, space.  In defence you need to restrict it; in attack you need to make it.  Fulham have, for some time, not had it in them to counter attack.  Counter-attacks are a good way to find space: draw a team onto you, leaving space behind them, then hit them when they’re on the front foot and kill them before they recover.  (This was the classic Eastern European philosophy in the 1970s and one of the best things I’ve ever read about football was an article in a book by Eric Batty about how the Czechoslovakie team of the 70s learned to counter attack.)

That’s not the greatest example but I wasn’t going to spend ages searching. Red Star Belgrade from 1991….

If you’re not going to counter attack you need to find other ways to create space.  Under Roy Hodgson this was done through cohesive teamwork: lots of balls into Zamora, who would then bounce them into the path of a cutting Damian Duff (hard to defend moves played out with such rapid precision) or clever patterns in wide areas that either freed Konchesky to cross or created pockets of space for a Gera or a Dempsey or even a Davies. Hodgson’s teams made space using pre-rehearsed routines that didn’t find opportunities every attack but which were adaptable enough to be recycled into a second or third phase (Murphy outstanding here) to continue that precise probing.  There was a direction to it, a purpose.

A typical high speed Duff attack (what a player he was)

I mentioned coincidence football the other day and there’s an element of the playground to proceedings.  Players playing off the cuff, improvising, seeing what they can see.  With no pace you’re relying on moment of genius or accidents. Now, clearly not all goals under Hodgson or even under Jol were well crafted acts of beauty, but the trick was a decisiveness and a purpose that is entirely missing.  This is an area where you can absolutely point at the coach.  No, he doesn’t have the Hodgson touch or Jol’s Diarra-Dembele-Murphy-Dempsey-Zamora setup (did that combination play much? It ought to have done), but he can find ways to make more incisive attacks.

Part of this lament relates back to the age old point about balance: if your defence is weak you end up over-compensating by pulling back too many attacking players.  That said, Fulham have uniquely in recent times managed to get neither correct.  This was Martin Jol’s genius, or lack thereof: give the team a more attacking outlook without scoring more goals (but conceding lots more!).  We’ve never got that hard-to-beat vibe back, and are presently in a hapless battle for control of football matches that invariably ends with the team being outshot and outscored.  You don’t conced five goals five times if you can defend, but arguably you don’t concede five goals five times if you can attack, either.

As the initial article pointed out: “systems that keep the ball in motion effectively have never been more successful.”  Fulham have got away from this.