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Champions League: Man U get the easiest group, Man City get the most difficult, and Arsenal left gunning for second

Manchester United boss Louis van Gaal will be delighted with UEFA’s new seeding method as it ensured them the easiest group in this season’s Champions League.

In previous seasons UEFA seeded the draw purely using their UEFA club coefficient which measured a team’s strength by how far they progressed in European competitions over the previous five years. This season, the top pot was formed by the champions of the top seven associations; Spain, England, Germany, Italy, Portugal, France and Russia – plus the Champions League winners. Since Barcelona won both the Champions League and La Liga, UEFA seeded the top pot with the winners of the Dutch Eredivisie, the eighth ranked league. That lucky team was PSV Eindhoven.

The remaining three pots were divided hierarchically by their UEFA club coefficient with the next eight highest ranked teams in pot 2, the next eight in pot 3, and so on.

The draw was held on Thursday and the groups are as such:

Group A: Paris Saint-Germain, Real Madrid, Shakhtar Donetsk, Malmö
Group B: PSV Eindhoven, Manchester United, CSKA Moskva, Wolfsburg
Group C: Benfica, Atlético, Galatasaray, Astana
Group D: Juventus, Manchester City, Sevilla, Borussia Mönchengladbach
Group E: Barcelona, Bayer Leverkusen, Roma, BATE Borisov
Group F: Bayern München, Arsenal, Olympiacos, Dinamo Zagreb
Group G: Chelsea, Porto, Dynamo Kyiv, Maccabi Tel-Aviv
Group H: Zenit, Valencia, Lyon, Gent

UEFA’s club coefficient is generated by a team’s performance in Europe over a five year period. The further a team goes in either the Champions League or the Europa League the larger their club coefficient. Further, that number is cumulative, so that the longer and better a team performs at the highest level, the larger their coefficient.

By adding each team’s UEFA’s club coefficient we can judge how strong each of the eight groups are based on total coefficient in that group. Essentially, by adding all those coefficients we are measuring how experienced each group is at winning in Europe. In order of strongest to weakest they go:

Group A: Paris Saint-Germain, Real Madrid, Shakhtar Donetsk, Malmö — 371 total coefficient
Group F: Bayern München, Arsenal, Olympiacos, Dinamo Zagreb — 352 total coefficient
Group G: Chelsea, Porto, Dynamo Kyiv, Maccabi Tel-Aviv — 337 total coefficient
Group E: Barcelona, Bayer Leverkusen, Roma, BATE Borisov — 332 total coefficient
Group D: 
Juventus, Manchester City, Sevilla, Borussia Mönchengladbach — 296 total coefficient
Group C: Benfica, Atlético, Galatasaray, Astana — 293 total coefficient
Group H: Zenit, Valencia, Lyon, Gent — 277 total coefficient
Group B: PSV Eindhoven, Manchester United, CSKA Moskva, Wolfsburg — 249 total coefficient

By this measure, Real Madrid have the hardest group and Manchester United have the easiest group. Real Madrid’s group is stocked with European experience: the Spanish club just won their 10th Champions League title two years ago and have the highest coefficient in Europe with 172. Malmo is a minnow club but PSG and Shakhtar combine to make a 186 point coefficient. This could be a good group to watch as Shakhtar might give PSG a real run for second place.

At the bottom of the table, Man U got the dream draw. PSV would have been put in pot 3 but for UEFA’s change of the rules this summer. And given that the Champions League winners often win their domestic league and that the Champions League winners are almost exclusively from the top four leagues, UEFA’s rules change in essence ensured one group would have two pot 3 teams. In this case, United’s group.

Further sweetening the pot for United is the fact that they purchased PSV’s top striker, Memphis Depay, this summer and VfL Wolfsburg’s top playmaker is going to be playing for Man City. If Manchester United don’t win their group handily it will have to be considered an utter failure.

That total coefficient table above is heavily weighted by teams with huge coefficients. Teams like Real Madrid and their 172 coefficient or Barcelona with their 165 coefficient push their groups artificially high making it look like they have a tough group. They don’t necessarily have the toughest group because they may actually be the thing making the group tough. So, if we subtract them out of the equation and average the bottom three teams the table looks like this:

Group D: Juventus, Manchester City, Sevilla, Borussia Mönchengladbach — 67 avg. bottom 3 
Group A:
 Paris Saint-Germain, Real Madrid, Shakhtar Donetsk, Malmö — 66 avg. bottom 3
Group F: Bayern München, Arsenal, Olympiacos, Dinamo Zagreb — 66 avg. bottom 3
Group G: Chelsea, Porto, Dynamo Kyiv, Maccabi Tel-Aviv — 65 avg. bottom 3
Group H: Zenit, Valencia, Lyon, Gent — 59 avg. bottom 3
Group C: Benfica, Atlético, Galatasaray, Astana — 57 avg. bottom 3
Group E: Barcelona, Bayer Leverkusen, Roma, BATE Borisov — 56 avg. bottom 3
Group B: PSV Eindhoven, Manchester United, CSKA Moskva, Wolfsburg — 49 avg. bottom 3

Now the table looks a little different. Man U still have an absurdly easy draw against their bottom three teams. Again, the easiest three teams they could possibly hope for. Barcelona also have an easy draw. But above them, Chelsea, Arsenal, and especially Manchester City all have tough groups.

In Group D, Manchester City have one of the most difficult groups in the competition. Manchester City’s group was seeded with Serie A winners, and last season’s Champions League runners-up, Juventus which could have made for an easier group since Juve has a relatively low UEFA Ranking of just 95.102 but as the luck of the draw would have it, Group D is comprised of three teams with a UEFA coefficient of 80 or more: Juve, City, and Sevilla.

Juventus lost star striker Carlos Tevez and kingmaker (not just a playmaker) Andrea Pirlo this summer and things could get easier for Manchester City if Juventus sell Paul Pogba to Chelsea as expected. Sevilla, however, are not going to be an easy team to beat — as their relatively high UEFA ranking suggests. They have a dynamic and powerful midfield duo of Ever Banega and Grzegorz Krychowiak serving up assists to center forward Carlos Bacca.

Group F has the second highest total UEFA Coefficient at 351.963 but this is no surprise as the Gunners were drawn against Bayern Munich and their ranking of 154.883. But excluding the German giants, Arsenal’s group has an average of 65.693 which is the third hardest group by that metric.

Bayern Munich are expected to win Group F easily and that leaves Arsenal fighting with Olympiacos for second place.  Arsene Wenger has never taken a single point against Olympiacos when playing in Greece, a record that the Gunner’s boss will be desperate to correct, no doubt.

Only the top two teams in each group advances to the knockout phase, or Round of 16. The teams that win their groups are seeded against the teams which finish second but they can’t be matched with a team from their own country or a team they faced in the previous round.

That means that if Arsenal advance, they will almost certainly be paired against another big club in the round of 16, where the Gunners have been eliminated in each of the last five seasons. Arsenal’s most likely opponents are Real Madrid, Atletico Madrid, or Barcelona. It looks like the pain in Spain is in the cards for Arsenal this spring.¹

Qq

¹I’m excited!

Everton need stones to keep Stones

Chelsea need an overhaul in defense. John Terry is in such a state of decline that his last two appearances for Chelsea have ended in a substitution and a red card. Moreover, Terry and Cahill might have that fighting British Bulldog spirit which rouses the fans but they are a ponderous duo which require a compact defense to operate most effectively. If Chelsea want to modernize their attack and become a more ball-forward type of football club, they can’t have Terry and Cahill at the back trying to clean up messes in acres of space. Instead, what they need are a pair of cultured, young defenders who can initiate the attack with an incisive pass along the ground, who can cover a large amount of space behind them, and perhaps most importantly, can play for Chelsea for another ten years. Enter Kurt Zouma and John Stones.

I’m not suggesting for a minute that Zouma and Stones aren’t strong defenders who won’t give 111%¹ and throw themselves in harms way at every chance, like John Terry and Gary Cahill have done for Chelsea. They will do that and more.

Instead, Stones represents the modern wave of British footballers. Like Calum Chambers, Jack Wilshere, and Aaron Ramsey, these young players are much more comfortable on the ball than their predecessors. Stones has been described as “effortless’ on the ball and every time I’ve seen him play I’ve been impressed with his control and composure. I would love Stones at Arsenal and have said so many times. So, it’s no surprise that Chelsea, looking to upgrade their back four with youth and technique so that they can finally play football the Arsenal way have turned to John Stones.

What is a surprise is that Everton have rejected bids of over £30m and have said that they will keep Stones no matter what Chelsea bid. It’s a bold move but one that makes sense in the current climate of the Premier League.

Stones just signed a five year contract extension with Everton in August of 2014. His signing coincided with that of Lukaku, Barkley, and Coleman, with the four of them set to form the nucleus of a young Everton team going into the next 4 years or so. Breaking that up now sets Martinez’ plan back years.

Worse still, the transfer window closes on Tuesday, so even if Chelsea offer £50m it’s unlikely that Everton will be able to find a replacement. Chelsea are rumored to offer £40m for Stones today and the player has helped their cause by turning in a transfer request.

And let’s face it, if Stones turns out to be as good as everyone thinks he will be, then he will be Chelsea’s starting center back for 10 years. £40m amortized over 10 years is a pittance for a player of that caliber. And in the current Premier League climate, where clubs are getting more lucrative television contracts and sponsorship deals every year — with Everton set to earn £47m for foreign television rights alone and another £70m in domestic television revenue —  a club might be tempted to wonder if even £40m is enough?

“Is £40m enough for a 21 year old center back?” would have been a crazy question 10 years ago but that is where the market is headed and you have to think of the future, not the current price. As English Premier League teams make more and more money from television contracts £40m looks far from the mark for a top player in England. Rio Ferdinand cost Man U £34m in 2002. That was thirteen years ago, a time when English Premier League television rights were on average just £23m, a year. That fact makes Chelsea’s first two offers between £20-30m downright derogatory.

In the end, no matter the finances at Everton’s disposal I would be shocked if they are able to keep Stones beyond this year. He’s had his head turned by Chelsea and while everyone is citing sporting reasons for him to go to the London outfit — and it’s true, he might get to play some Champions League games if he is inch perfect under Mourinho — let’s not forget that Chelsea will hand him a huge new contract and the chance to earn massive endorsement money. Stones is looking at the chance to be the new face of the Chelsea defense and thus to land new shoe contracts and and sugar water endorsements. I’m not calling him greedy, far from it, this is just the economic reality of the Premier League. This move to Chelsea will set him and his family for life, it’s little surprise that he’s handed in a transfer request.

But what is the end game for Everton? To make Stones play all five years of his contract out at Goodison Park? Doubtful. They have to be realistic, Stones is done at Everton and Chelsea have disrupted their plans to build a core team of strong young players around him.

But the problem is that Everton need time to find a top quality center back to replace Stones and in this market that is difficult to do. So, it would be wise to keep Stones for one more year and put their efforts into scouting Stones’ replacement and perhaps identify some other young players to bring in with the Stones money.

And don’t worry about Stones. I know he got some stick for his performance in the Capital One Cup against Barnsley but he won’t put in poor performances for long, he needs to keep playing strong if he wants that move to Chelsea next year.

Qq

¹110%? Most defenders give 110%, These defenders go to ELEVEN.

coq

Drop our Coq and we drop our pants

By Tim Todd

Arsenal are three games in to the season: the Gunners lost on opening day to West Ham due to two individual errors combined with poor attacking play; then they beat Crystal Palace with yet another disjointed performance which allowed Palace back into the game; and earned a draw against Liverpool in a “tale of two halves” match which saw a good Arsenal goal disallowed but could have gone either way before and after that. So, a loss because of two errors, a win, and a draw that might not have been a draw if the referee had gotten the call right and people are running around in a Kermit-armed panic trying to figure out how to fix Arsenal’s woes.

And how do they propose to fix Arsenal’s woes? So far, the two dominant theories are: drop Ramsey or drop Coquelin. Both are potential powder keg arguments and both are wrong.

The drop Coquelin idea comes from a Grantland article by Mike Goodman. It is the more explosive of the two ideas so let’s deal with that one alone. His main arguments are that Coquelin can’t play with the ball at feet as well as a world class midfielder can, that he’s a specialist defensive midfielder who operates best in a compact formation, and that Coquelin can’t play in an expansive midfield which grants space to the opposition. So, he surmises, Arsenal need to drop Coquelin and buy a world class center mid.

To the first, I have made the same argument. As it stood last season, Coquelin’s passing range looked fairly average. His long ball percentages were low, he was content to pass the ball sideways to Cazorla, instead of looking for the killer pass, and I worried if teams would simply allow Coquelin to have possession during Arsenal’s attack phase.

But I also argued then and still believe now that Arsene Wenger can get Coquelin up to speed in terms of passing. And so far¹ that has proven to be true. Coquelin, has gone from an 85% passer to 90%, has gone from 60% long ball accuracy on just 2.5 long passes per game to 70% long ball accuracy on 5.7 long passes a game and has one accurate cross (of one attempted) this season, where he only attempted three and failed in all three all last season.

If that Grantland article had been written this summer, when I wrote mine saying virtually the same thing about Coquelin’s lack of attacking threat, I might agree. But the signs are encouraging that Coquelin has worked on this part of his game. He did struggle offensively during the Liverpool match, but Arsenal’s entire starting XI struggled offensively and defensively in that first 45 minutes.

The other arguments are basically two parts of the same coin. Let’s just put this plainly: there is no defensive midfielder in the world who doesn’t prefer a compact system. A compact system plays to the strengths of a defensive midfielder and allows him an almost free role to roam a small space in midfield wreaking havoc on opposition attackers. Like a destructive #10.

The problem is that the compact system is difficult to pull off and win consistently. Atletico Madrid does it with the fastest counter attacks I’ve ever seen which get the ball into crazy good positions for a predatory forward. They are a specialist team, however, and their manager’s philosophy will one day be found out, probably when a team like Chelsea comes to town and gives Atletico possession.

Arsenal’s system is the most common system, then, for teams who want to win consistently. Bayern play an attacking system, Real Madrid, Barcelona, Manchester City, all the best teams in the world play an attacking system. Even Chelsea play open, attacking football against teams that they aren’t afraid of. And Mike Goodman is right, these systems grant space to the opposition which is difficult for any defensive midfielder to cover.

Matic struggles mightily to cover both those spaces and for his teammate, Cesc Fabregas. They are the two most dribbled players in the Premier League at the moment. So, I agree, covering space, when you have a poor defender next to you, like Fabregas, is difficult for a defensive midfielder.

But you counter that with pressing and Goodman mentions that at the end of the article but fails to mention that Arsenal played a pressing team defense last season and that they are not doing that as well this.

This is the main difference between last year and this year. Arsenal’s pressing last year was fantastic, think back to the destruction of Liverpool. Arsenal pressed high up the pitch forcing Kolo Toure and the entire Liverpool back line into countless mistakes. Here’s a screen grab which illustrates exactly what I’m talking about:

Press

That’s Coquelin all alone in midfield, there are four Arsenal players pressing two defenders and Toure has just one outlet pass he can make to break pressure. He tries to make the pass but Giroud wins the ball from him.

Arsenal conceded space in midfield in that game, Arsenal played high up the pitch, Coquelin was forced to cover vast amounts of space, but Arsenal pressed Liverpool and the Gunners won that match 4-1.

This season, Arsenal’s press has gone off the boil. Here’s another screen grab which illustrates how Arsenal are slow to the press:

Ramsey beaten

 

Puncheon receives the ball in acres of space (top of the screen) and Ramsey rushes out to close him down. Puncheon easily dribbles past Ramsey and plays the ball in to Bolasie (bottom right). Meanwhile Ward, the Palace right back, notices that everyone is ball watching and traipses up the pitch into the space left behind Ozil (bottom left) and scores from an open shot.

If Ramsey had been in a better position, closer to his man, they don’t get the cross off, if Ozil is switched on to the threat from right back, they don’t get the shot off, and if Alexis (not pictured) follows Ward up the pitch, they probably don’t get the shot off.

And note that this is Arsenal playing compact: the system which is supposed to best suit Coquelin. But Palace bypassed Coquelin in this possession, something they did time and again in that match, by playing long diagonals into spaces which weren’t being properly controlled by Coquelin’s teammates.

Against Liverpool, it was a different story. Both teams played an amazing open match and ran at each other for 45 minutes. Offensively, Arsenal looked great at times but when they lost the ball in the Liverpool half, they didn’t work hard to try to win the ball back and left the Liverpool back four to themselves, granting them time to pick out a man with a long ball.

Despite Arsenal granting Liverpool time on the ball and huge swathes of space behind Arsenal’s attacking line, Coquelin was absolutely masterful cleaning up the Arsenal messes in that match and finished the game leading all players in ball recoveries, tackles, and interceptions. Coquelin did struggle at times in attack, but so did the whole Arsenal team, especially in the first 45 minutes when Liverpool put them under tremendous pressure: pressing as a unit, like Arsenal did last season!

It’s strange to me that people look for one player who is to blame for all of the ills on a team. Whether that player is Ramsey on the right or Coquelin in the middle, critics tend to point the blame at one guy. There are times when one guy’s mistake can make the difference in a game and if he does that consistently, you do have to eventually drop that guy. But football is a team sport. If the eleven players on the pitch aren’t controlling spaces effectively in either the offensive or defensive phase, the team is going to struggle.

But I’m not even sure how much Arsenal are really struggling! Two individual errors against West Ham granted them the win and a blown offside call grated Liverpool a draw. Meanwhile, if Coquelin is holding back Arsenal’s attack, you wouldn’t know it: the Gunners have created more shots than any team in the League and are getting those shots in dangerous areas but are just failing to convert.

Perhaps we should all just calm down a bit and let the team have some more room to breathe. And stop pointing fingers at individuals when it’s the team which is struggling to find its form.

Qq

¹samplesizesamplesizesamplesize