Leicester serve up a season worth savoring

Leicester City are going to win the League and are going to break the triopoly of Man U, Man City, and Chelsea. It’s going to be a dream come true to see Cesc Fabregas giving Claudio Ranieri a guard of honor. Especially since Ranieri was fired by Chelsea in order to bring in the Mourinho era.

Since I have been writing this blog only three teams have won the League. Those three teams have spent the most money on transfers and wages and essentially built the model of spend, spend, spend.

Before the arrival of Chelsea and Man City, Arsenal were the team that broke the mould. We were the team that didn’t spend, that sold our players for enormous prices to Spain*, that bought cheap and sold high, and who had a large salary but certainly nothing like what Ferguson had at Man U. That’s not to say that Arsenal weren’t a big team, we were the famous Arsenal, but rather that in those days a team could challenge for the League without spending obscene amounts of money.

And I mean obscene. For example, in the 2003/04 Invincibles season, Arsenal had the third highest wage at £70m and the second highest transfer spend with £16m.  In the previous title winning season 2001/02 Arsenal had the second highest wage bill at £61m and the 8th highest transfer spend with £11m. There were plenty of teams spending money in those years — Man U, Chelsea, Leeds, and Liverpool were up there with Arsenal in total spend — but no one was doing what Chelsea would do starting in the Abramovich era; spend 10x the transfer money of any other team and double the wages.

Manchester United quickly followed suit and 5 years later Manchester City added their oily money to the pot and for the last 11 seasons the three biggest spending teams have won the League.

Until this season.

Leicester have a team that are well organized, they play as a team, their players are ambitious, and they play to their strengths. Leicester have also largely escaped injury, they are finishing at above normal rates, and they have gotten the benefit (early in the season) of referees calls, especially penalties, but none of those facts are abnormal for a title winning team.

Leicester have followed a simple formula for success. They don’t over complicate their system and they don’t ask players to play in ways that they can’t. For example, Robert Huth is not a ball playing center back so Leicester don’t try to build from the center back position. Their center backs are also not fast, so they don’t try to play high up the pitch where they would be exposed. They also have some of the fastest players in the League in Vardy and Mahrez so they play compact, simple football which plays exactly into the strengths of their star players, Mahrez, Vardy, Kante, Drinkwater, and Huth. This is basic stuff, I know, but there are a lot of teams who try to complicate football unnecessarily.

As for injury, there are some that want to sully Leicester’s injury record with insinuations that they are doping. We don’t have evidence of that but we do know that they have a dedicated team of physios who test pitch conditions and set up practices to maximize success. They also didn’t have to play in Europe which made their season simpler and in this all important post-Christmas period they have only played 16 matches whereas Arsenal have played 20. It’s also not that unheard of for a team to field a small team: Chelsea, for example, only used 20 players last season, just 1 more than Leicester this season. United used 23 players two years ago, Man City 21 players three years ago, United 21 in 2008, and so on.

As for their finishing, I have been looking at scoring percentages for years and I have detailed data back to 2008. I can confidently say that the top teams always finish at above normal rate. Leicester are actually not converting at a historically high rate. Their bulk conversion (minus pens) is just 11%, tied with Arsenal, West Ham, and Everton. Last season’s winners were highly efficient: scoring 13% of their total shots. And for two seasons prior to that we actually saw the winning teams convert 14% of their total shots.

The other accusation I see a lot is that Leicester have been awarded too many penalties. But 10 penalties in a season isn’t at all unusual for a title winning team — Liverpool had 12 in their title challenge season, Chelsea had 11 in 2012/13, Chelsea 12 in 2009/10, etc.

Most fans are suggesting that Leicester got lucky this season and some fans are even saying that this is the worst Premier League season ever. Both of those things ring true. Next season Chelsea will have Conte in charge, Man City will have Pep Guardiola, and Man U will probably have Mourinho. All of those teams are going to spend money to bring in new players that fit the systems that their managers want them to play. All of those teams are going to be supremely organized. And Chelsea will also not have the burden of Champions League football.

In addition, there are several up and coming teams: Liverpool are looking like a team with an interesting new identity, Tottenham play a good brand of football, and even West Ham are starting to look like a team that could challenge for 4th place.

And starting next season teams are going to reap an additional £35-40m a season in television revenue.

The League is changing. Teams are getting wealthier and will be able to attract more players like Mahrez and Kante. We are going to see all the games get more difficult from top to bottom. But the question is “will we ever see another team like Leicester win the League?” Do the fundamental changes to the Premier League mean that every team has a chance to win the League if they do what Leicester has done and play to their strengths?

I doubt it. This looks like a one-off, like Leicester were just in the right place at the right time. And if that’s the case, we as fans of football should savor this moment. Because if I’m right, the Premier League is about to revert back to the triopoly of Man U, Man City, and Chelsea winning the title every season.

Qq

*Wenger’s magic in the Spanish market is amazing: the sales of Overmars, Petit, Hleb, Song, and Vermaelen more than make up for the cheap prices we got for Cesc and Henry.

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Arsenal’s disorganized mess lose the lead to a corn bun

The Good

Arsenal scored two unanswered goals early in the game as Slaven Bilic got his tactics all wrong and conceded Arsenal tons of space in the middle of the pitch.

You can see how much space Arsenal had for their first goal in this image:

West Ham-space

West Ham had failed to clear after fouling Monreal (you can see Monreal on the ground in the penalty box, still appealing for a penalty). The ball came to Elneny and he headed to Coquelin. Coquelin picks out Iwobi, who makes a move, and releases Özil. Özil still has work to do but finishes nicely to put Arsenal up 1-0.

It was a familiar play for the second Arsenal goal as well. Coquelin was literally in a bubble with no defender around him. He will never get that much space in a game of 11v11 again and when you look at this screen cap, note how much space Elneny and Bellerin are given as well (to Coquelin’s right). I can’t remember a time in an Arsenal match when I’ve seen a team simply let Arsenal’s center mids play without challenging them.

West-Ham-second-goal

Coquelin actually plays the ball in to the one player who is covered by four defenders, Iwobi. Thankfully Iwobi deals with the pressure and finds Alexis flying in behind the defenders at the top of the screen. Iwobi played a perfect ball over the top and Alexis collected and scored unmarked.

Allexis now has two goals in two games and has 5 assists and 2 goals in the last 7 games, since being rested against Watford in the FA Cup.

West Ham manager Slaven Bilic looked at the start of that match and realized that his 3-4-2-1 formation was allowing too much space in midfield and at half time, switched to a more conventional 4-4-2.

The Bad

But Bilic never did ask his team to pressure Arsenal in the middle. Here is the heat map for the game and you can see, just like in the images captured from the game, that West Ham didn’t contest the middle of the pitch:

West Ham-heat

From the very start you could see that West Ham’s game plan was to play crosses in from wide positions and use Carroll’s size advantage over Arsenal’s fullbacks.

Wets ham first

West Ham scored their first goal on a counter attack. With Carroll and Payet clear in space (bottom, left), a poor cross is played to Payet, allowing Bellerin (who is playing high up on right) to recover and stop Payet playing directly to Carroll.

But what Bilic wanted to do with the 3-5-2 formation is exactly what happened: Arsenal’s forwards failed to track Cresswell’s run (bottom, right of the screen) and Cresswell puts in a cross with almost no pressure.

West hams second

Given hundreds of yards of space, Cresswell has options: he could dribble into the box, he could play Payet in, or he could pick out a cross. He sees two West Ham players attacking the penalty spot and chooses the cross. Expected Goals tells us that this is a low percentage pass/shot but what happens here is that Kouyate (above Carroll) makes a run to take away Koscielny. Carroll then makes an end run around and gets in front of Monreal, who will be kicking himself for letting the striker get ball side, and Carroll scores a good header.

West Ham’s second goal was probably a bit lucky/unlucky: Arsenal fail to clear a corner, West Ham collect, put in a hopeful cross, Carroll manages to stay on side, chests the ball down, has his first shot blocked, and hits the second in off the volley.

For West Ham’s third, Arsenal actually seemed to learn the lesson of the first. Monreal is tight with Antonio and Arsenal have a good line and balance across the back. There is an overload behind Bellerin with Payet but that won’t come into play. Antonio just beats Monreal in the 1-on-1 and stand up the cross. Bellerin stays in front of Carroll, like he should, but Carroll has 6″ advantage over Bellerin and simply beats him to the cross.

It still takes a bit of luck to go in, it looks like Arsenal’s goalkeeper, Ospina, has the header covered, but Arsenal Center Back, Gabriel, steps in front of Ospina and heads the ball into the top of the net.

Fans have asked what Per Mertesacker could have added to the game, but unless Arsene was going to play Per in the fullback position, that answer is “not much”.

Another feature of this match was West Ham pressuring Arsenal. Arsenal had 32 turnovers on 744 touches in this game. In contrast, Arsenal only forced West Ham into 13 turnovers on 524 touches. Arsenal had a turnover per 23 touches and West Ham had one every 40 touches. I went back and looked at all the Arsenal matches this season and I can’t see any pattern to the number of turnovers by Arsenal making a difference in the game but this match was one of the worst of the season in terms of the turnover ratio, -17. The other matches with a similar turnover ratio were Chelsea -16 (1-0), Liverpool -19 (3-3), Newcastle -18 (1-0 win by Arsenal which many said was lucky), and Man City -15 (2-1 win which again many said was lucky).

The Ugly

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There is the hat trick hero: cornrows and a man bun, a corn bun. I can’t think of much uglier than that.

On the Arsenal side, I am growing worried about the visual displays by Özil. He is now throwing his hands up on a lot of offensive possessions and looks frustrated with his teammates.

Tottenham won today, Leicester won this morning, and the title race is officially over now, folks. In truth it was over months ago. Watch any of the teams above us and you can see teams that are organized and able to hold onto leads. Leicester have now won four in a row 1-0. They were supposed to fall apart but instead they have actually solidified and played better than earlier in the season. Meanwhile Tottenham have solidified a position above Arsenal with a 3-0 win over Man U today in another great late season performance. And Arsenal have now climbed into 2nd place in terms of teams who have dropped points from a winning position (behind Liverpool).

These aren’t things to be ashamed of. These are targets for Arsenal.

Qq

Elneny-Cazorla-Ramsey

Elneny, Cazorla, and Ramsey: three different types of cannons for the Gunners

From yesterday’s comments we get today’s Question of the Day… Is Elneny really this good or is Ramsey really that bad?

It’s something that I have thought about myself. What am I really watching when I see Elneny play football? For this discussion I think we need to look at Elneny and Ramsey in the context of the player they are replacing, Cazorla. That looks like this:

Elneny-Cazorla-Ramsey

 

So, basically, what you get is three different types of players. Elneny leads Arsenal in passing %, hitting 92% overall and 72% from long balls. This is the role Arteta played at Arsenal when he used to play for us back in the 1960s. The other number he does that is Artetaesque is the possession loss: low possession loss numbers go hand in hand with players who perform a metronomic function in midfield.

I don’t know why Elneny’s tackle numbers are so low. Perhaps he hasn’t had a chance to tackle as much, or perhaps he is learning the game, or perhaps Coquelin has just been on fire.

Cazorla leads Arsenal in passes per game, is second in key passes, and is fourth in dribbles.* Cazorla provides Arsenal with a second creative option in midfield. He likes to collect the ball and redistribute but he also can provide the final ball that Elneny hasn’t done so far.

And then there is Ramsey. And look, it’s just straight out true about Ramsey, he LOVES going forward: his shots numbers are like a forward, his possession loss is like a forward, and he doesn’t create for his teammates, kinda like a center forward. What Ramsey also offers, however, is that he tackles and intercepts like a midfielder and he’s third in pass volume behind Cazorla and Elneny!

My answer to the question is: none of them are good or bad but rather Arsenal have three different flavors of center mid to play alongside Coquelin.

All three players are insanely active on the pitch, Elneny runs more than all of them but Ramsey is no slouch – he goes back almost as much as he goes forward. With Elneny you have a player who sits deeper and dictates play with his passing but isn’t yet providing the final ball or breaking up opposition attacks with tackles. With Cazorla, you have a player who loves to recycle possession and provides a second attacking outlet in midfield. Cazorla is also a master at getting out of tight spaces with a groovy dribble. And with Ramsey, you have a player who makes runs into the opposition final third and never hesitates to shoot while trying to break up play from the front. Elneny is your long range gun, Cazorla is a middle gun, and Ramsey is a forward gunner.

All that said, this is a small sample for Elneny and there are signs that he can do all the things Cazorla can do. For example, Elneny had his best game of the season so far against Barcelona. It’s a statistical “one off” but in that game he was…

93% accurate on 45 passes, had 2 key passes, was 3/3 dribbling, was 3/4 tackling, made 2 interceptions, made 2 clearances, made 3 fouls in the right areas of the pitch, and scored Arsenal’s only goal.

He was Arsenal’s best player on the day and frankly gives Arsene Wenger a “selection headache” between him and Ramsey at the moment. Until Cazorla returns from injury, that is!

Qq

*Ox, Alexis, Welbeck are all in front of him but they are all 50% dribblers while Cazorla is a 80%. This is mostly down to the fact that the front three players are attempting dribbles in and around the box where it is crowded and Cazorla is attempting them in midfield where he has more space and fewer defenders.