Tag Archives: Premier league

Tony Pulis pontificates on the meaning of referees in the Premier League

West Brom v. Arsenal: a drab afternoon in the Midlands

Arsenal have a  great chance to go top of the League this weekend when they take the Gun show on the road and face a West Bromwich Albion side with the second worst home record in the League.

Albion have shipped 16 goals in 12 matches this season and 12 of those have come at home on the way to a 1-1-4 record. Perhaps it’s a bit unfair to Albion to call out their home record out since the opposition they have faced at home so far this season has been Man City (0-3), Chelsea (2-3), Southampton (0-0), Everton (2-3), Sunderland (1-0), and Leicester (2-3).

Three 2-3 losses at home in the opening 6 matches is an odd record for sure. And considering the teams they faced it might be a bit reckless to suggest that this will be a walk in the park. But Arsenal have title aspirations and if Arsenal want to claim the League they are going to have to match or best what Man City and Leicester have come and done before them.

City also have a much tougher match, facing Liverpool, as the late game for Saturday. An Arsenal win over West Brom would pile a bit of pressure on City. As an aside, Leicester (and Man U) could also go top of the table, if they beat Newcastle and both Arsenal and City drop points.

West Brom have some underlying stats which show that they can’t be taken for granted. They have only conceded 1 goal from an error and 5 errors total this season. That ranks them 3rd best in the League in that category, tied with Man U and Leicester, and just above Stoke and Southampton. This indicates a team that is well drilled by Pulis. As an aside, the phrase “well drilled by Pulis” was originally going to be the Killing Word for the Weirding Module in David Lynch’s Dune.

But the reason why West Brom have so few errors is that West Brom play an Allardycian system: they spend more time getting restarts and time wasting than they do playing football. This is similar to the van Gaalian system, though van Gaal is known for keeping possession and killing off games that way. Either way you slice it, Pulician, van Gaalian, and Allardycian squads are remarkable for their overall lack of activity.

West Brom have the lowest possession% in the League at 43.5% and they are also 3rd lowest in tackles. West Brom also commit the fewest fouls in the League, take the fewest overall shots in the League, are 15th in the League in dribbles, and draw the third fewest fouls. Like all teams who hate playing the game, these teams put out very few stats in general. Their goal isn’t to play football, it’s to kill off games.

As Eduardo Galeano put it in Soccer in Sun and Shadow, men like Allardyce and Pulis are technocrats:

His mission: to prevent improvisation, restrict freedom, and maximize the productivity of the players, who are now obliged to become professional athletes.

Pulis has players, Sessegnon, Berahino, and Rondon all have the ability to turn a drab afternoon at the Hawthorns into a night to remember with a deft dribble or a delightful moment of interplay. But under Pulis, these men are left to be just another cog in Pulis’ anti-relegation machine. It’s no wonder that Pulis can’t find a place for Arsenal’s Serge Gnabry, another in a long line of precocious Arsenal players, because Gnabry is probably smart enough to see that Pulis doesn’t teach people how to play football.

There is a lot of talk about the cost to watch a football match, with Arsenal often the focus of fan’s ire because of their prices. But what price would you pay for a season of Pulician football? The Midlands of England is a dreadfully boring place to live — their star attractions in West Brom are a climbing wall, a laser tag place, and a pub — but in those conditions wouldn’t you want your football team to do more than simply “survive” relegation? If I lived there, I’d rather my team got relegated with a manager who had a vision to bring something magical to my existence rather than watch a single minute of Pulis’ team time-waste their way to a 1-0 victory over the equally dreadful Sunderland.

Lost in the debate about “greed” in football is how teams like West Brom don’t even try to bring beauty into the lives of their fans. Hiring a man like Pulis is simply telling the local fans that the only thing that matters is saving the team from relegation. Hiring Pulis is like calling the ambulance. How much money would you pay to watch Tony Pulis perform CPR on the WBA corpse for an entire season?

Arsenal and West Brom are on the opposite ends of the spectrum: one plays beautiful, attacking football with unpredictable players like Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Özil serving up incredible moments of skill and the other plays cheap, boring, anti-relegation technocratic football which essentially cheats all viewers out of the joy of the game.

My prediction is Pulis will double down on his efforts to close castle West Brom. He will note Arsenal’s injuries to key improvisational players like Ox and the possibility that Arsene might rest Alexis for this match and he will set his team out to take a 90 minute match and turn it into about 5 minutes of play. It’s in those 5 minutes that the game will be decided.



Would you rather: Arsenal win against Bayern OR Arsenal lose against Bayern?

Have you ever played “would you rather”? It’s a simple game where one person comes up with two scenarios and asks which you choose. For example: would you rather, spend your life living inside Theirry Henry’s boot during the Invincibles season or live only one day but on that one day you get to score the winning goal for Arsenal as they win the League? See? Two tantalizing¹ scenarios and you have to choose between them.

Someone asked me a “would you rather” on twitter yesterday. He didn’t just ask me though, he asked a bunch of bloggers, so I’m not linking to his profile because it made me feel cheap and tawdry (as if being tawdry wasn’t enough, I also felt cheap) to be used this way. His scenario was: would you rather finish last in our group in the Champions League but go on to win the Premier League, or finish 3rd in our group, lose the UEFA Cup final, and finish 3rd in the League?

I probably should have known by the fact that the scenario is too simplistic that it was a trap but I bit anyway: of course, you win the league. It turns out that he was just worried about Tuesday being a “Pyrrhic Victory”: a win that inflicts such heavy losses that it might as well be a loss. Or as Pyrrhus himself put it “one more victory like that and we will be undone.”

You can’t confuse “would you rather” with real life, however, because none of those outcomes are guaranteed! Just like you probably can’t be a worm in Henry’s boot, Arsenal aren’t guaranteed either of the results he posits.

First off, the League. Liverpool had the League in their grasp, they didn’t have any Euro cup matches, they had the best striker in the League on their team, and they literally slipped up, losing 2-0 to Chelsea and a devastating 3-3 draw to Crystal Palace. Not playing in Europe certainly helped their charge for the League title but it didn’t guarantee them anything.

In fact, Manchester City won the League that year and they finished second in their group in the Champions League, second behind Bayern Munich. They went out of the Champions League in the round of 16 losing 4-1 on aggregate to Barcelona. Those extra two games didn’t hurt their Premier League (and League Cup) title season.

That Man City scenario is almost exactly what I predicted when I saw the draw and despite Arsenal’s poor form in Europe I am sticking to that prediction, second place is still on the cards.

With Arsenal at the bottom of their group and with zero points, finishing second is going to be more difficult but the problem in those first two matches was that Arsenal played naive. Instead of letting the goals come to them (and possibly settling for draws), they went full bore and were undone at the back. With Arsenal finally finding the back of the net over the last three matches I wonder if Arsenal might turn this around. An early goal would settle a lot of nerves and it’s a lot easier to play with the lead than chasing the game — which is what Arsenal have been doing this whole Champions League campaign.

A lot hinges on tomorrow’s match. Bayern Munich just won 1-0 over Werder Bremen and you might be tempted to think that the machine is slowing down, don’t. Since the start of the season they have scored 37 goals in 11 matches and they have only allowed 4 goals. Bayern may have only scored 1 goal but they were in complete control throughout that match against Bremen.

Bayern will be in complete control against Arsenal as well. That means Arsenal will have to play a counter-attacking style. In a way, this suits Arsenal because it forces the team to focus on defense first, which has been the problem in Europe up to this point — by chasing goals, the Gunners have been far too open and allowed the opposition to carve them apart.

I’m not trying to whitewash the game or make it seem less difficult than it will be. Bayern Munich are the best team in Europe. They are the most physically fit team I’ve ever seen, they press relentlessly, and they are the most well prepared team I’ve seen in Europe. Ceding possession to Bayern is exactly what Bayern expect and they will be ready for the tactic.

But strangely, Arsenal could lose both legs to Bayern and still finish second in the group: if Bayern finish with a perfect record and Dinamo and Olympiacos draw against each other, twice, and lose to Arsenal, twice, the Gunners would have 6 points and Dinamo and Olympiacos would have 5! The point here is that there are so many permutations left that it’s simplistic to write Arsenal off for the whole season after tomorrow’s match.

Fantasy results aside, the thing I agree with my “would you rather” quizzer is that I would prefer that Arsenal not finish third. I’m not going to go so far as call it the end of the season for the Gunners, but flying off to Azerbaijan to play matches isn’t optimal for a Premier League team.

Still, despite the travel, and despite the fact that some first team players would have to get a run, Wenger could use those games as a chance to play many of his youth team players. He could treat it like the League Cup, which is basically what it is, the League Cup of Europe. So it’s hardly the end of the world to finish third. It’s just not optimal.

Ultimately, though, I always want Arsenal to win. My theory is that winning begets winning² so you don’t want to go into any game hoping to lose. You don’t want to take a dive, that’s a one way ticket to palookaville. You want to be a contender. You want to be someone. You don’t want to be a bum. Of course you don’t want a Pyrrhic victory but winning against Bayern Munich, the best team in Europe, isn’t a Pyrrhic victory in and of itself: in the truest sense of the word, it would require multiple injuries to be Pyrrhic.

No, this is a chance to measure themselves against the best team in Europe and see just see how far Arsenal have come. Throwing this game “to focus on the League” is throwing in the towel. Which is pointless especially since there are no guarantees that throwing in the towel would even get the result you want.

So, let’s re-write the initial question. Would you rather: Arsenal win against Bayern Munich on Tuesday and prove to themselves (and everyone else in world football) that they have the mettle to compete with the best teams in Europe which could spark a serious title run OR have Arsenal lose so that they have very little hope of finishing in the top three and have it confirmed that they are just not good enough in Europe which could negatively effect their form in the League?


¹The world famous Comedy Bang Bang podcast plays a variant of Would You Rather where the scenarios are not tantalizing at all but rather just weird or both uncomfortable. e.g. ”Would you rather have to spoon a sweaty Richard Simmons every time you fall asleep OR drink piping hot mayonnaise as your only beverage for life?”
²It’s entirely my theory, no one ever came up with anything like this in the history of sports. Just like “expected goals” wasn’t a simple extension of “Expected Value“.

Arsenal v. Man U: Opposites Repel

If you haven’t had a chance to watch Manchester United this season, you’re in for a bit of a surprise. Louis van Gaal has guided United to the top of the Premier League table but not with swashbuckling football, rather by playing a brand of controlled football which many have decried as boring.

Manchester United have never been known as a bulk shooting team. In all the years under Sir Alex, United led the League in shots per game maybe once or twice. And in his last season Fergie averaged just 14.7 shots per game, 7th best in the League. Fergie always prized efficiency over sheer numbers but surprisingly, since his retirement United have taken fewer and fewer shots per game each season, dropping to an all time low this season of just 11.4 per game. That’s 14th worst in the League, tied with Aston Villa.

Van Gaal is able to get away with this low total offensive output because his team is amazingly efficient. They have scored 11 goals this season (minus own goals) and 9 of them have been from Big Chances. Their Big Chance conversion rate is an astonishing 69% and they get 84% of their big chances on target. I can’t say whether that will “revert to the mean” because title winning teams often outperform standard metrics, that’s what makes them the winners, they are better than average. But I can say definitively that their conversion rates and big chance conversion rates are astonishing.

There is a hint that perhaps this is a Man U efficiency bubble. United only created three big chances in their first 4 matches. But since Liverpool, and the introduction of Anthony Martial, United have created 10 big chances in their last three matches. And while they scored 1 big chance of their first three attempts, they have scored 8 of their last 10.

What allows United to get away with such poor overall chance creation is not just the scoring efficiency but also the fact that they are the best defensive team in the League. They have conceded a League best 5 goals this season and have conceded the fewest total shots of any team, just 62. United have also conceded just 7 big chances to the opposition, and conceded 2 of those as goals, tied with Arsenal for the best record in that category.

Van Gaal’s apparent tactic is to win games by choking the life out of them and hoping that his superior talent will convert the few chances he gets and win them the game on the day. Oddly this is the exact opposite of what is happening at Arsenal at the moment. 

Arsenal are the most prolific shooting team in the league, averaging 21.1 shots per game. Arsenal have also created 23 big chances this season, more than any other team in the League, and yes, that counts Man City who have created 10 big chances in their last three matches alone, but who have only created 22 big chances in 8 matches.

Arsenal’s problem, as regular readers of the blog know, is that they have been wasteful in front of goal, converting a paltry 5% of their total shots and an abyssal 22% of their big chances. Both os these conversion rates are about half what we would normally expect.

Wenger is trumpeting his team’s win over Leicester, when the Gunners cruised to a 5-2 victory, and he has good reason to do so; his team finally converted their big chances, 3/5, and Alexis even added a low percentage distance goal to the tally. It remains to be seen if this was just a sprinkling or the start of a deluge for the Gunners.

Rooney is a nemesis, scoring twice in the last two matches and 14 times in 31 overall matchups with Arsenal, stretching all the way back to his days with Everton. Rooney isn’t the main focus though. United play 42% of their offense through the left side of the pitch, mostly running things through Depay. He hasn’t been prolific in front of goal (yet) but he is a dangerously quick and powerful young man and Arsenal’s Hector Bellerin will face a stern test.

Offensively, these two teams are direct opposites — Arsenal profligate, United frugal — and unless one of these teams abandons their form of the early season, this could be a very boring match.


Drink extra coffee to stay up for this match. I don’t expect an end-to-end affair like Arsenal’s win over Leicester but rather a cagey affair with both teams looking to kill off possession and hit each other on the counter. Rather than a goal glut, this is a match that will likely turn on a single conversion.