Category Archives: World Football


Man U and Tottenham’s foul play prove that referees need help

Football, more than nearly any other sport, relies on referees to get the balance correct. After all in a sport where teams routinely win by a single goal, a single bad call can mean the difference between winning and losing. And after this weekend’s results one thing is very clear, the referees in the Premier League are not getting the balance correct and desperately need help in the form of video replay.

In the Villa-Tottenham match, referee Neil Swarbrick gave a red card to Villa’s Christian Benteke for raising his hands to Ryan Mason’s face. It was exactly the wrong call and given for all the wrong reasons.

In the build up to the card, Benteke was shielding the ball when Erik Lamela tried to shoulder barge him off. The smaller Spurs man comically bounced off of Benteke and crumpled in a heap on the ground. Lamela got up and rushed Benteke trying to win the ball back with a wild tackle and as he passed the Belgian lashed out with his arm and looked to have caught the Villa man in the face.

Meanwhile Lamela’s Spurs teammate Ryan Mason steamed in and was all hands and feet trying to get the ball and at the exact moment that Lamela looks to have struck Benteke’s face, Benteke turned around to confront his assailant. Mason got in Benteke’s face, headbutted him, and then when Benteke had the temerity to raise his hands to push Mason away from him, Mason grabbed his face like… well, like a liar… and pretended he was injured. Seeing his teammate mortally wounded, Erik Lamela did the thing that must come naturally to him, and ran over to the referee, eyes wide at the horror he’d just seen, and brandishing an imaginary card demanded that Benteke be sent off.

Swarbrick took Lamela’s bait — hook, line, sinker, and subscription to Bass Pro Monthly — and after a brief conference with his sideline official showed Benteke a red card. The problem here is that it was always going to be Benteke who got sent off.

The reason is simple, the Premier League and their referees reward aggression and punish retribution. They always have as long as I’ve been watching. Remember when Arsenal’s Gervinho was fouled in the box by Newcastle’s Joey Barton, then Barton screamed at him and hauled him up off the ground by his shirt and when Gervinho put his hands up to get this monster off him, Barton collapsed on the ground like his face had been ripped off. And in a mirror of Spurs man Lamela wild-eyed and looking for the referee to punish, Barton’s teammate Steven Taylor ran straight to the referee, gesturing as if Gervinho had elbowed Barton. Gervinho saw red, Barton saw a pay rise.

I’ve seen this happen countless times, Patrick Vieira was sent off for a confrontation on Dennis Wise after the Leicester man tackled Robert Pires and then yelled at Pires to get off the ground. Jeremy Aliadiere was sent off for touching Javier Mascherano’s face after the Argentinian had made his umpteenth brutal tackle on the Frenchman. Too often this happens that referees allow aggressive play and then punish the opposition for standing up to these bullies.

The formula to get a player sent off in the Premier League is simple: aggressively harass the opponent, wait for the opponent to attempt any retribution, and if he does collapse in a heap on the ground like you’ve been shot while your teammates run straight at the official eyes wide at the injustice of it all.

After Benteke was sent off, Tottenham stormed back and won the game 2-1. All the talk this weekend has been about Harry Kane’s free kick which won the match, but it was a poor referees decision which cost Villa three points. Let’s hope Villa avoid relegation by more than three points or it could be a decision which cost the club and supporters millions of Pounds.

Meanwhile in the earlier match, Michael Oliver had a different kind of nightmare. The kind of nightmare where he refuses to award three stonewall penalties.

The game was Man City versus Man United and Man United were outclassed in every position on the pitch: Yaya Toure dominated the midfield, Sergio Aguero dominated the United backfield, and Vincent Komapny dominated the United forwards. United’s frustration grew until, in the 39th minute, Chris Smalling got himself sent off for two absurd fouls.

Playing against 10 men, City took the game into another gear and started creating good chance after good chance. The first came almost immediately after Smalling was sent off: Fellaini was filling in at center back and Aguero collected the ball deep in the penalty box. Fellaini, because he’s a terrible defender* kicks Aguero’s Achilles, Aguero goes down (as you do when your Achilles has been kicked because that hurts) and Fellaini looks at referee Michael Oliver. Oliver swallowed his whistle.

United sorted out their back line but City were still on top of their local rivals and on the stroke of half-time had a second stonewall penalty turned down. Yaya Toure beat the sleeping Rojo to a ball flipped over the defense, and Rojo went through the back of Toure, between his legs, and maybe got a nick on the ball as he hauled the Ivorian down.

People comically don’t see this as a foul because “Rojo got some of the ball”. There is no “got some of the ball” rule. If you take out your opponent, who is in an obvious goal scoring position (as Yaya Toure was), with a tackle from behind – going through the man to win the ball – and you bring the man down so that he can’t recover the ball and score? That is a red card and a penalty.

The third, however, was possibly the most egregious of them all. Referee Oliver is staring, unobstructed, at Kun Aguero as he dribbles across the United box. He then watches as Aguero is fouled by both Carrick and Fellaini and refuses to award the penalty. Fellaini even makes the face that proves he is guilty.

English football is no longer a game played behind closed doors, un-televised, and only reported on by a handful of scribes and witnesses in the stands. These games are now broadcast all over the world, with instant replay, and fans are able to capture moments on their vine and tweet them out to their followers. In short, every aspect of the game is now viewed through the lens of technology. Every aspect save one: the view of the referee. It’s time that referees are given the same benefit as the rest of the world. It’s time that referees are given instant replay.

Since I know this idea engenders a visceral reaction I will suggest that the FA and PGMOL start simply, with post match red-card reviews. Major League Soccer does this. Ex-post facto they punish players who commit red card offenses which the referee saw and punished with only a yellow card. They also punish players who got away with fouls. In the Benteke situation above this means that Erik Lamela and Ryan Mason would receive retroactive red cards for their actions. This doesn’t help Villa get their three points back, but it does put all the players on alert that their bad behavior will no longer be tolerated. That players will no longer be able to get away scot-free with endless provocations.

After that, I think managers should be allowed to demand a single, or maybe one per half, referee adjudication using video replay. This would solve the problem of Michael Oliver not calling a penalty in the Manchester Derby. At least I hope it would force Oliver to call those plays correctly. There’s still no guarantee that the referee would change his mind.

But at least we would all be on the same page and right now, referees in the Premier League aren’t even i the same paper. They are still using papyrus.


*I say this for the benefit of the three Arsenal fans who still think he could play defensive midfield for Arsenal. He can’t. He can’t because he has almost no understanding of how to defend. His idea of defense is “sticking a foot in”. So, unless you want to risk conceding a penalty every time you play, you don’t play Fellaini as a defensive midfielder.


Toward a model of adjusting player stats for the “personality” of the team and the league

As I said in my first article on this topic I think that Ted Knutson from StatsBomb has a good idea. Individual player’s stats are deceptive and need to be grounded in the context of the “personality” of the team he plays for and the League he plays in. The idea of adjusting individual’s stats for the personality of the team, in his formula he used possession, is solid. The problem is that possession doesn’t map to defensive stats because possession is simply a ratio of passes.

The reality of football is that teams vary wildly in terms of their defensive aggression. How often a team attempts tackles or gathers interceptions has a very weak correlation to possession stats. I want to be clear that I’m not trying to hammer anyone here. Rather, I’m trying to build on Ted’s idea and create a new model which will help us to understand individual player’s stats better.

To that end, take a look at the chart of Premier League teams below (click to embiggen):


In this chart I have sorted the 20 League teams by possession. I have broken down each team’s tackles and interceptions. Then I have taken the League averages for the tackles and interceptions (added together) and the averages for tackles and interceptions. Then I have done a +/- over the average for total, tackles, and interceptions.

What you can see very clearly is that the top five teams who dominate possession also are among the most aggressive defensive teams in the Premier League, with the exception of Arsenal who are essentially an average defensive team. Those top five teams are making more passes than average (that’s what possession measures) and more tackles+interceptions than average. The next three teams are known as defensive teams and yet they have fewer tackles+interceptions numbers than average.

I think that the Chelsea numbers are a good clue as to why teams who have a reputation for boring and defensive football also are less active defensively. If you look at the whole chart, teams with a negative overall defensive number are all well known to be disciplined defensive sides. They aren’t diving into tackles or playing the passing lanes. They sit back, in two banks of four, and play positional defense. That’s my theory anyway.

So, perhaps we could adjust player’s stats based on an overall “defensive aggression” number? Even if we did that, however, we might be wrong adjusting certain player’s stats, like say tackles, on a team like Swansea who (as you can see from the chart) aren’t a very tackle oriented team.

Looking at the next two columns we see a further breakdown of each team’s defensive personality. For example, the most aggressive tackling teams are Stoke, Liverpool, Crystal Palace, Southampton, and Manchester City. I think that’s a fair assessment of the Premier League, actually. Stoke and Liverpool play smash-mouth football, which may offend some Liverpool fans but for anyone who has seen them play you know that they are scrappy and a bit dirty on the defensive end. Crystal Palace is another interesting team. I bet they avoided relegation last year simply with their amazing defensive work rate, that +299 with + in both tackles and interceptions is really crazy.

Regardless of whether you agree about my analysis of Liverpool and Crystal Palace, I think I’ve made my point here with regards to using possession as a means of adjusting player’s stats. Instead we should probably be looking at the personality of the team and using that to adjust a player’s stats. How, exactly, we adjust for that I haven’t figured out yet. I don’t have a math genius here to bounce ideas off of, like Ted does. If you’re a math wiz and you want to help, just leave me a comment below. I’ll get back to you.

In the mean-time, one more thing to consider: a team’s stats also vary from league to league. For example, the Bundesliga is a far more aggressive league in terms of tackles than the Premier League.

BundesligaRemember that Bundesliga teams only play 34 games a season and yet they are averaging 339 more tackles per season than their Premier League rivals! That’s 10 more tackles a game. Per team. For my money that seems like a much more important thing to adjust for than possession.

How do we do that? I don’t know, yet!





Why we shouldn’t adjust defensive stats for possession

“Have you thought about adjusting your stats for possession?” – Everyone since June

Last month the venerable Ted Knutson published an article strongly suggesting that us stats folks should adjust basic defensive stats like tackles and interceptions for possession. The theory being that the more possession (offense) a team owns the fewer opportunities that same team has to make defensive actions. If true, then we should adjust player’s individual stats for their team’s possession. It’s a good theory with only two minor flaws: 1) it’s wrong and 2) it’s wrong. I know technically that is just one flaw but it seems like such a big flaw that I felt it deserved to be repeated.

First, you have to understand what possession is and how it is measured. Opta measures possession simply as a ratio of passes between teams. Ergo if Arsenal make 600 passes and West Ham make 400 passes the possession numbers at the end of the game are reported as 60-40. Measuring possession as pass ratio has caused a good bit of consternation among stats nerds for a few years now. As you know, many teams, like West Ham, intentionally waste time when they have the ball in order to prevent teams like Arsenal playing. At the end of a match like that, however, a team with faster passing might end up dominating possession as something like 70-30 when in actuality the possession numbers were more like 50-40-30 with 30% of the ball being out of play.

Don’t believe me that a ball could be out of play for 30% of the match? Well, if we use the alternate method of tracking possession, the “chess method” where a clock is actually deployed and time measured for when a team has control of the ball we see that Bayern, for example, led the Champions League in possession last season at 65% and yet only had, on average, 38 minutes of play. 65% of 90 is 58.5. Where did the other 20 minutes go? Time wasting and other tactics to slow the game down.

But even if we were to accept the idea that possession is a “good enough” measure of offensive dominance and thus defensive opportunity it still doesn’t explain why a team like Barcelona who routinely have 68%+ of possession would wrack up fewer tackles than a team like West Ham who routinely have ~40% of possession. If the idea that less possession = more opportunity and therefore inflated individual and team defensive stats we should see West Ham, Fulham, and Crystal Palace blowing away teams like Barcelona in terms of total tackles and interceptions.

Or even if we were to stay in the Premier League and take Southampton, who led the Premier League in possession, and compare them to the bottom teams we should see the bottom teams have more tackles and interceptions. After all, they have more opportunity.

But rather than seeing a direct correlation between possession and defensive stats, we actually get a very poor correlation as you can see below. Southampton and Man City led the League in possession while West Ham, Crystal Palace, and Fulham were the bottom three in possession.



How is it possible that Southampton made 1802 attempted tackles and interceptions while West Ham, a team known as a tough tackling side who Stuart Robson loves to commend for “earning the right to play”, makes just 1456 of the same actions? That’s 346 fewer actions, almost ten a game! And Southampton has 58% of the possession compared to 42% of the possession for West Ham? The answer is simple: possession, or lack thereof, has little to nothing to do with tackles and interceptions.

If we were to apply Knutson’s formula to a comparison matrix between Mark Noble and Morgan Schneiderlin we would artificially inflate Schneiderlin’s tackles and interceptions numbers on the inverse basis of their possession % and artificially deflate Noble’s numbers on the assumption that he has more chances to tackle and intercept. The only problem is that here, between these two teams, that would be exactly wrong.

The problem is in the assumption. The assumption is that every time a team makes a pass it presents an opportunity to intercept. Similarly, that every time a player makes a dribble it presents an opportunity for a team to tackle. But not every team is trying to win the ball back with every opposition possession. Noble tackles less because his team tackles less. If you’ve seen them play you know that they are content with the opponents having the ball in their own half. Meanwhile, if you watch Southampton, they press. They try to force turnovers.

That’s just one example, there are others. In fact, Ted’s own regression analysis showed an R2 value of just .40. Only 40% of the variation can be explained by the model. That leaves a whopping 60% unexplained. I’ve done a fair number of regression analyses and I would probably never publish a .40 much less make some of the sweeping statements that Ted makes.

The thing about stats and especially football stats is that you have to keep them grounded in context: in the context of a team’s playing style, in the context of a player’s abilities and history, in the context of a league, the context of that league’s overall competition, and in the context of a league’s refereeing style.

I do think Ted is on to something. The idea that playing style matters to the end stats is bang on and you do see me taking into account a player’s contributions to the team’s whole. That said, possession only measures pass dominance. So, if I were to adjust anything for possession it would be passes. If I wanted to adjust defensive stats between two players, I might do something similar to what I have done above and compare those two teams’ tackles+interceptions ratios. Or even better, find out what the team’s tackle-interception ratios are in the League and then adjust for that.

But possession? I’m not even sure I like the possession stat as a “possession” stat much less as something I would use to adjust defensive output.