Author Archives: Jeff

Hitting the Bar – Who Creates the Most Goals? Arsenal’s Robin Van Persie

On Sunday, Tim had a great article on Robin, Theo, Torres and Bale.  Lots of great stats.  And great conclusions.  Some of which I might seem to diverge from today, so be forewarned.

I’m also going to disagree with – or expand on – something else said recently by someone else, this being Arsene Wenger.  He said, about Robin Van Persie, “He is like Lionel Messi in the positional sense.”  To which I want to add: in the scoring sense, too.

Because there is no one in the Premier League who comes close to Robin Van Persie as a goal creator – by which I mean both goals and assists.

It’s not even close.

Success in football is due to the ability to score more goals than your opponents.  This may sound like a banal truism, but it is the ability to outscore your opponents that matters most, not the ability to keep them from scoring.  And you have to win.  If a team played all 38 games and won each won by one goal, it would have a perfect season – 114 points — and a goal differential of 38.  And 38 is the magic number.

Over the last ten years of the Premier League, the lowest league winning goal differential was 40, by Manchester United in 2002-3.  If you want to win the league, you have to average better than a goal more than your opposition.  Doing so doesn’t assure top of the table, but it is required.  In seven of the last ten years, the second place team had a GD of 38 or better, and four times the third place team did as well.

If it were all up to defense, then how could Arsenal and Fulham both let in 43 goals last year, yet Arsenal finish 19 points ahead of the Cottagers, who finished 8th?  Stoke City allowed only five more goals than Arsenal, yet the Pulisanimous crew finished 13th, only 7 points above relegation.  Offense matters most, and it is harder.  And when compared to any other sport, not very much offense at that.  Last season, only Manchester United succeeded in averaging better than two goals scored a game, and of those, three were opposition own goals and four were from penalty kicks.

Snarky aside:  Not to say defense doesn’t matter, which is something they seem to forget consistently at White Hart Lane.  If you ever get worried about Spurs possibly challenging for the Champions League, just check out their GD.  Its consistently awful, even while their offense is not that good.

So what matters most in assessing offensive players is how much they contribute to producing goals during the minutes they play.  Or to put it another way, how much scoring do they produce when they are playing?  Whether they create a successful scoring opportunity with an assist or whether they put the ball in the net is somewhat irrelevant.  What also matters is what they control – their play on the pitch.  To me, therefore, the most accurate measure of a player’s offensive value then is the number of goals he scores or assists in the run of play, per 90 minutes played.

The following chart shows the top scorers in the Premier League last season, based on their total goals and assists, and deleting their scores from penalty kicks.  Their minutes on the pitch have been totaled and divided by 90 to get a number of Full Games Played, and their productivity is assessed on that basis.

Name

Apps

Full Games
Played

Goals

Assists

Goals from
Penalties

 

Total
Points

Team Goals
/ Game

Robin Van Persie

25

19.6

18

7

2

23

1.17

Dimitar Berbatov

32

24.5

20

4

0

24

0.98

Theo Walcott

28

18.9

9

7

0

16

0.85

Javier Hernandez

27

16.9

13

1

0

14

0.83

Carlos Tevez

31

28

20

6

5

21

0.75

Nani

33

30.5

9

14

0

23

0.75

Peter Odemwingie

33

29.9

15

7

0

22

0.74

Didier Drogba

36

31.1

11

13

2

22

0.71

Wayne Rooney

28

25.6

11

11

4

18

0.70

Rafael Van der Vaart

28

24.7

13

8

4

17

0.69

Cesc Fabregas

25

20.9

3

11

0

14

0.67

Andrei Arshavin

37

24.4

6

11

1

16

0.65

Dirk Kuyt

33

31.3

13

7

0

20

0.64

I calculated this for guys with high goals or assists, so there may be people with low minutes who also produced at a rate of better than 0.64 team goals per game.  FYI Florent Malouda’s number is 0.55 and Darren Bent’s is 0.52.  Solomon Kalou is 0.74.

Side comments:  Perhaps these stats don’t tell the whole story of these players.  Would a player like Peter Odemwingie perform better at a more attacking club?  Well, turns out his club was 5th in shots taken and sixth in shots on goal, so perhaps not.  And what about Dimitar Berbatov?  What surprises me is how much he played, more minutes than Rooney, despite the narrative that he was always pining on the bench.  That said, seems perfectly reasonable to me that Fergie let Tevez go in favor of Berbatov.

More to the point, this chart puts Theo Walcott in a new light.  Is it just that he works well with Robin, as Tim has shown, or is the fact that he was more productive than everyone on the list save two older players give us new appreciation for him?

As for Robin, this rate of production is not something new.  In 2009-10, he generated 1.15 goals per game.  He was below 1 goal per game in 07-08 (0.85) and 08-09 (0.82) after having generated 1.11 goals per game in 2006-7.  To sum up, over the last five years, Robin Van Persie has generated more than one goal scored for Arsenal in the Premier League for every 90 minutes he has played.

If any player can match that, you can probably count them on the fingers of one hand.

So do I think Arsenal should redesign the wage structure for him?  Yup.

Gareth Bale and Theo Walcott

Obviously, here’s an example where numbers fail to tell the truth and obscure the real quality of Gareth Bale when it is right in front of your face, right?  Especially since he has a “footballing brain” while Theo does not.

 

Name

Apps

Full Games
Played

Goals

Assists

Goals from
Penalties

 

Total
Points

Team Goals
/ Game

Gareth Bale

30

27.2

7

1

0

8

0.29

Theo Walcott

28

18.9

9

7

0

16

0.85

Samir Nasri

30

27.3

10

1

1

9

0.37

 

I threw in Samir to show how badly he played last year.  Hope he improves.  From these numbers, representing the performance of these players in the Premier League last year, you would think that Roberto Mancini would be eager to upgrade with the Welsh dynamo.

And How About Those Game-Changing Penalties?

I don’t know if the red card against Wheater changed anything about the match on Saturday, but it certainly changed how Bolton could play.  And they could believe that they could have nicked a draw had the red card not been granted.  Who’s to say they are wrong to feel that way?  They would have to argue reasonably that they would not have faded, and with 11 men would have stopped both Theo, Robin, and Song.

On the other hand, the Blackburn game had at least three game changers.   Here’s a quote from one of my favorite Arsenal bloggers, Goonerholic, after theBlackburn match:

“Normally I would make more of the fact that Yakubu was offside for his second strike, but it was a marginal decision. The assistant referee can be cut some slack for that one. Normally I would be up in arms about the non-award of a penalty for Robinson wiping out Theo near the end, but again it was a tough call for Andre Marriner. Normally I would slaughter the referee for not sending off Olsson for his appalling dive near the end, but having somehow called a free-kick for the non-contact, how could he?”

I don’t get this reticence and guilt.  I know Song and Koscielny shipped own goals.  I know that such play is awful, and if it leads to a defeat, one should not be surprised.  But why is it ok to not admonish the ref for shambolic umpiring?  Had the ref got these calls right, Arsenal would have snuck away with perhaps a 3-4 win, and while the moaning and angst over the two OGs would have been huge, it would have been the fair result.

Fair result?  Yes, though you probably think otherwise.  My view is if the ref doesn’t mistakenly gift the game to either team, the result is fair, no matter how well or poorly the teams play.  That’s called sport.

Hitting the Bar – Chamakh Attack Flak, Arteta and Jack

Why All the Flak on Chamakh’s Attack?

With the close of the transfer window and people writing a host of season predictions, you can’t take three clicks without seeing someone damn Marouane Chamakh as currently useless and unable to participate in the Arsenal team as he once did.  One pundit said he was weak due to fasting for Ramadan, showing how shallow sports commentary can be.  On Saturday, one of the wise men calling the match on FSN said Chamakh had not scored in 25 games, since the FA Cup tie against Orient.  Since that match, Chamakh has appeared in 11 matches, only twice as a starter.  But making up a number like 25 games is so much more satisfying, I guess.

The common perception is that Chamakh came in to Arsenal at the beginning of last season with a bang, performed very well for half a season, and then faded significantly, due to whatever reason floats your boat, either a physical impediment or loss of form.

So I took a look, and think that’s mostly crap.  Three words explain why Marouane Chamakh had a good first half and a bad second half last season: Robin Van Persie.

Well, that, plus the fact that Arsene Wenger brought Chamakh in as the number two center forward, behind Van Persie.

Its All About Getting Minutes

Last season’s Premier League proved to be one of two distinct halves for the pair, the first dominated by Marouane, the second by Robin.  In the first 19 games, which ended Dec 31, Van Persie was absent.  The reverse was true the rest of the season.

 

Minutes Played, 1st Half of Season

Minutes Played, 2nd Half of Season

Offense Points per game, 1st Half of Season 

Offense points per game, 2nd Half of Season

Chamakh

1514

333

0.54

0.54

Van Persie

264

1504

1.02

1.20

 

This chart compares the minutes played be each player in each half of the season, and reports their offensive production from the run of play in each half.  It tells us two things: first, that their seasons were mirrors in reverse.  Second, that both performed consistently in producing goals from the run of play, whether playing a little or a lot.  The fact that Chamakh contributed 3 assists and no goals in his 333 minutes in the second half is no different than if he had produced 3 goals and no assists: its still 3 goals, at his usual rate.

They rarely shared the field, confirming that Wenger’s policy, even though he has spoken about playing them together, was not to do so, certainly for roster allocation reasons, and perhaps for tactical reasons as well.  In the first 19 games, Chamakh started 17 games and the largely injured Van Persie started 2; they shared the pitch only 99 minutes.  In the second half, Van Persie started 17 matches and neither started the matches against Birmingham and Man City in early January (Bendtner did.)  Chamakh started only one second half Premier League match, the last one against Fulham when he joined RVP in the starting lineup.  All told, they shared 269 minutes in the second half.

More detail.  Six times one subbed for the other, the first being in August when Van Persie injured his knee in his first start after the World Cup, against Blackburn.  (This happened again on Saturday.)  In 10 games one or the other came on late as a sub to play with the starter.  Most of this happened in the last ten games of the season.  As Arsenal slowly went south, Wenger put Chamakh on as a substitute in five games.  All in all, the two players filled the center forward position for 36 of Arsenal’s 38 matches, and shared the pitch only 10% of the time.

There’s no question why this happened.  Both are center forwards.  Chamakh is a fine player.  He’s just not Van Persie.  Here are their offensive production records last year in open play in the Premier League:

FGE ¹

Goals from
open play

Assists

Offensive
Points

Min. per
shot

Points per
Game

Accuracy ²

Chamakh

20.5

7

4

11

35.5

.54

33%

Van Persie

19.9

16

7

23

18.8

1.17

40%

  1. FGE =  Full Game Equivalent – Minutes played / 90
  2. Accuracy = Percentage of shots on goal that scored

Robin had a remarkable season, averaging 1.2 goals + assists for each 90 minutes played.  Chamakh’s production was 0.54 goals + assists per game, not as good as Cesc, Arshavin, or Walcott, but 50% better than Nasri.  If both players are fit you select Van Persie every time.

Two other things of note: first, Chamakh’s accuracy was second on the team to Van Persie.  And his minutes per shot was the worst of all the main offensive players.  Is that his failing or his teammates?  Impossible for me to say.  But maybe Chamakh was under-utilized in the Arsenal system when he played.

What About Cups?

One reason you need two good players for each position is because when you compete in 60 matches in four competitions, there is no other way to go.  Games rush in on you so fast, you need good second teamers to fill the gaps, especially on offense.  Nowhere is that clearer than at the center forward position.

Again, it is a tale of two halves, but somewhat different.  Through December 31, Arsenal played 9 cup ties, with a record of 7-0-2.  Chamakh played 336 minutes in 7 matches, with 3 goals and 1 assist, an average of 1.07 goals + assists per 90 minutes.  Van Persie played two games, logged 160 minutes, and struck for one goal.  The three matches which saw neither player start were the win against Newcastle in the Carling Cup and the losses to Shaktar and Braga, in which Robin was still convalescing and Chamakh was clearly exhausted, coming on for the last 18 minutes each time.  How do I know he was exhausted?  Well, he started 4 Premiere League games and an international match in the 17 days between those two losses, so I think it’s a safe bet.

In the season’s second half, Arsenal played 10 cup matches.  Chamakh started 4 and subbed in three more, putting in 340 minutes in these matches in January and February.  Van Persie started 5 and subbed in one.

Interestingly, when Chamakh started a cup tie, Arsenal went 7-1-0.  When Van Persie started a cup tie, Arsenal went 3-0-3.  Those three losses were the exit matches in the three competitions.  In the four matches where neither player was fit or rested enough to start, Arsenal’s record was 2-0-3.

Bottom Line

So did Chamakh go off the boil and never return?  Nope. I think he might have been a bit knackered by the end of the year, given the spate of games he played in November and December, but after Van Persie’s return and a brief rest of a week or two, Chamakh was available, and performed in many cup ties.  When the schedule eased up after the three cup failures, and Van Persie stayed healthy, there was little he could do to get minutes.

This is, of course, all hindsight.  Chamakh was never Wenger’s first choice as center forward and it is likely that he realized he could not explore playing Chamakh and Van Persie together during the months of two games a week.  Van Persie’s injury August 28 against Blackburn kept him from starting for three months and eliminated any flexibility Wenger had sought, though it makes the acquisition of Chamakh a key get.  During Van Persie’s recovery, Arsenal lost the Champions League group competition thanks to two losses when Chamakh did not start.  Maybe this is coincidental, not causal, but a case can be made that had Chamakh been able to start those two matches, Arsenal might have fared better and might have avoided having to play Barcelona when they did.

With some press mentioning that Van Persie wants a freer role up front than he has had, we may see Wenger try to work the two strikers together.

The real loser in all this was Nik Bendtner.  Like Van Persie, he came back from the World Cup injured, yet could not replace Chamakh in the first half when his opportunity to start in the center would have occurred.  Maybe it was his driving, or maybe he didn’t show enough for Wenger to believe he was a confident replacement for Chamakh.  We’ll never know for sure.

Arsenal is entering a part of the season where the team plays games twice a week.  It is for these times that Wenger wants these two center forwards.

Our Chances with Arteta

Hate to be so optimistic, but I think Arteta is a great catch.  Thanks to Opta, we know that over the past five seasons, Arteta created 2.7 chances per game for Everton.  Opta reports only five players created more chances per 90 minutes:  Cesc and Giggs at 3.5, Malouda at 3.1, Lampard at 3.0 and Nani at 2.8.

What encourages me is this:  the other top chance creators played for teams with far greater offensive production than Everton, and while Cesc and Nani are young, Malouda, Lampard and Giggs are not:  chance creators do not have to be the fastest youngest players on the team.  All they have to do is stay healthy.

Jack’s “Persistent Ankle Problem” and Other Injury Blindsides

Tim did a great look at whether Arsenal’s injury experience was out of line with other top clubs (and Spurs) playing in multiple competitions.  One thing I particularly admire is that he looked at it in multiple seasons, knowing that any single season can be a statistical oddity.  Lots more can be done, I’m sure, but regardless of the outcome, one thing I hate is how Arsenal refuses to come clean in a timely fashion about their players’ injuries.  This is not the 18th or 19th century, people.  Sports medicine can and does diagnose and treat complex injuries, all of which have definite names, prognoses, and treatments, far more complicated than the word “knack.”  Or “persistent ankle problem.”  It’s an ankle, for God’s sake!  Modern medicine has long, complicated and precise descriptions for every precise thing that can go wrong with it.  How else does insurance know what to deny coverage for?  Gimme a break.

Hitting the Bar — Shelter from the Storms

Twas in another lifetime, one of toil and blood
When blackness was a virtue and the road was full of mud
I came in from the wilderness, a creature void of form
“Come in,” she said, “I’ll give you shelter from the storm” – Bob Dylan

What a week, eh?  (No, I am not Canadian.)  First the storm in Manchester, then the storm of transfer window activity, with some wondrous additions coming in to Arsenal.  Lastly the thousand-year storm of utter crap and negativity about Arsenal, Arsene, and the entire enterprise.  Just incredible.  There’s numbers for everything except that last.  And if its not as good as what Bob found, well, it ain’t bad…

The Hundred Year Storm in Manchester

You know the idea of the hundred year storm? Well, this is Arsenal’s hundred-year defeat, and while that doesn’t make it any easier to take, it should help bring needed perspective.  Some times, everything goes wrong at once

Was it a surprise that Arsenal lost at Old Trafford?  Don’t see how.  Even at full strength, and ignoring Howard Webb’s presence, it was most unlikely.  What if Arsene chose to park the bus?  Do you think that’s something they practice a lot?  Down in the reserves, maybe?  And anyway, given the player absences, all Arsene would have been able to park was a large cardboard packing crate on roller skates that had been left out in the rain.

So if the defeat should not have been a surprise, maybe it was the size of the defeat that shook you, because I’m willing to bet that if the result had been 3-1, 3-2, even 4-2 with a missed PK, most fans would not feel so violated.  Well, don’t, because I’m here to tell you that more than anything else, the size of the defeat was down to two reasons:  United were unusually superb and they piled it on.  Consider some numbers:

12.6%    – percentage of shots United scored with last year, tops in the league

33.3%    – percentage of shots they scored with on Sunday

19.0%    – percentage of shots Leo Messi scored with last season

21.7%     — percentage of shots Thierry Henry scored with in 2004-5

36.8%    – percentage of United shots on goal that went in last season (also tops)

57.5%     – percentage of United shots on goal that went in on Sunday

36.4%    – percentage of Messi’s shots on goal that went in last season

5.5           — United’s average shots on goal per game last season

14             – United’s shots on goal on Sunday.

315          –  matches Ashley Young has played as a professional (since 2003)

3               – times before Sunday that Ashley Young has scored twice in a match

Is that Young stat a “hundred game” rarity?  Obviously, there are lots of stats like this.  It was an amazing performance by United.  I know our defense could have been much better, and this is not a matter of ignoring that, just acknowledging what Arsenal faced.  I didn’t research it, but can anyone really think that Wayne Rooney has netted two such fine free kicks in one game before?  Not me.

For comparison, Arsenal netted 11% of their shots last season, second highest in the league, and 14.3% of their shots on Sunday.  They put 25% of their shots on goal in on Sunday, compared with last year’s average of 30.5%.  (That was tenth in the league, yet Arsenal made up for it by putting 11% more shots on goal than United last season.)

The match breaks down this way.  Through 62 minutes, it was 3-1, and should have been 3-2 but for RVP’s horrible penalty.  Coquelin’s removal weakened the middle, and United got three great goals in 14 minutes.  Then the red card, and that’s when United put up the numbers that resulted in their passing superiority.  Down to ten men, down 6-2, United poured it on, completing 127 or 132 passes and scoring two more goals.  It was a rout, and no doubt Wenger rues subbing off Coquelin.

When the entire United team performs at levels that Leo Messi can only dream of, do you not have to give them some credit?  On Sunday three things happened that can be checked off your “Things I’d like to see Before I die List” – Ashley Young nets two Beckham-like goals in one game, Rooney nets two free kicks with finesse, not force, and David De Gea saves a penalty.  It’s a one-off, folks.  Happens to everyone, and usually more frequently than once a century.

As for piling it on, that was class, wasn’t it?  Ferguson’s remark that they could have scored more should be all the proof you need.  United let up?  What a lark!  Is that why they were in the box when Theo gifted them a penalty?  Is that why Young took that long shot in extra time?  GMAFB.  The man who was knighted by The Arsenal Fan wanted to crush Arsenal, stamp them into the ground, make their supporters squeal in pain.  And he got what he wanted in the way the press and fan base responded.

Late Acquisitions Restore Some Hope

I’m thrilled at the new signings, and don’t think they’re as much a departure from past practice as people think.  Every season in recent memory Wenger has started the transfer window by bringing in a rising yet largely unacknowledged future star, usually from France – Sagna, Nasri, Koscielny, Vermaelen, and Chamakh.  All are internationals and the first three were made so by coming to Arsenal.  Then he signs some promising youngsters, sometimes for a lot of money, getting flak for each one.  There is the winnowing out of the youth corps to send those who will have no chance on their way, plus loans for others who
need more seasoning.  And near the end of the window, he picks up some opportunistic bargains like Gallas and Baptista or older players like Sylvstre and Squillaci to fill short-term gaps created by an injury or departure.

Normally, undesired departures have happened at the start of summer, like Henry, Viera, Flamini, and Hleb, and Arsenal had time to figure out how to replace them and stay within plan.  This year, that wasn’t the case, and we will likely never know all the reasons why it took so long, but to me they all are pronounced “Barcelonan toads.”

Looked at that way, the transfer window seems closer to normal, if far more numerous:  Gervinho in at the start, followed by young players like Campbell, Miyachi, and AOX.  The youth winnowing went as usual, accompanied by off-loading players who had made the squad, but for whom it was time to leave.  That was different.

Then, when all efforts to keep the midfield intact failed, Wenger went to the usual; end game, perhaps with a bit less time to do so than normal.  Dos Santos is both a defensive need and a fire sale buy from Turkey; Mertesaker is said by many pundits not to be as good as Cahill, although he has played 77 times for his country’s team, and they have done a bit better than England in international competitions, so not sure I buy that.  He is bigger than Samba, and can’t be less mobile.  The Korean is there for a number of reasons, but mostly, I think, because with the departures of Nasri, Bendtner and Eboue, to name three, Wenger has fewer people to play on the wing on offense, and also wants an alternative to Chamakh in the middle.  Benayoun is a classic late
career signing, though in midfield.  And Arteta is more, and the truly different acquisition.

Our New Field Commander

As long as Cesc was at Arsenal, Mikel Arteta was the player least needed by the club.  Then he became most needed, and we got him.  His game is mature.  He’s had to produce and command the offense in the offensive wasteland that is Everton. He knows the Premiere League.  It should be a great signing.  Everyone is talking about his frailty, which I don’t see.  Except for 2009-10, when he was injured, over the past six years he has started and played a similar amount of games as Cesc.  His numbers last year at Everton weren’t the best he has put up, but they were still better than Nasri’s, in a much worse and offensively limited team.

Last year, Everton were 11th in the league in goals scored, 6th in assists, 7th in shots on goal, 15th in percentage of shots on goal, 8th in percentage of goals created with an assist, and 9th in percentage of shots that were on goal.  Arsenal were second in all these categories, except the last, where they led the league. How can Arteta not be more in a squad that is far superior offensively to
his old team in every possible manner?

Watching those Refs

Well, even though his decisions did not affect the outcome, Howard Webb did make some game-changing decisions last Sunday.  I recall at least three: the PK given Arsenal, perhaps wrongly, the PK given United, and the red card to Jenkinson.  Any others?

Finally, A Word for the Press

On Sky Monday morning some See You Next Tuesday named McCarthy delightedly went over the Monday coverage of the debacle at Old Trafford. He noted that all the coverage focused on Arsenal, not United, and how right that was, quoting at length from such “wise heads” as Samuel and Williams, before mentioning, all the while shaking his head in wonderment, that a few, Paddy Barclay, to be one, found something positive to say. Then without pausing, he contrasted that with the coverage of Spurs-City, where the focus was on the excellence of City, not the woefulness of Spurs. How breathlessly approving and amused he was. And if you look at the weekend’s routs, who did the world’s media cover? City, Barca, Real, and Arsenal. Made me go back to the following…

A newspaper is a collection of half-injustices
Which, bawled by boys from mile to mile,
Spreads its curious opinion
To a million merciful and sneering men,
While families cuddle the joys of the fireside
When spurred by tale of dire lone agony.
A newspaper is a court
Where every one is kindly and unfairly tried
By a squalor of honest men.
A newspaper is a market
Where wisdom sells its freedom
And melons are crowned by the crowd.
A newspaper is a game
Where his error scores the player victory
While another’s skill wins death.
A newspaper is a symbol;
It is feckless life’s chronicle,
A collection of loud tales
Concentrating eternal stupidities,
That in remote ages lived unhaltered,
Roaming through a fenceless world.

Stephen Crane