Thursday, 3 April 2014

Will someone take a chance on Hughes?

At the start of March, somewhat prematurely, the Football League decided to announce their players of the season. The best young player in the Championship, according to this panel, was Derby County’s Will Hughes. Past winners of the award have included Gareth Bale and Wilfried Zaha.

Derby currently sit in 4th place and will be hoping to ensure a playoff position in the coming weeks, with that comes the possibility of promotion and a chance for Steve McClaren to prove himself at the highest level once more. Understandably there’s been a lot of buzz around Will Hughes, especially when the transfer market rolls around, although at the minute Derby and the Championship seem to be the right place for Hughes to reach his utmost potential. At just 18 years of age he is certainly one of the brightest young English midfielders, having already made 7 appearances for the Under 21 side.

He looks to be mature beyond his age, with an aptitude for reading the game and being able to pick the perfect pass when the moment is right. This is shown by the fact that Hughes averages 42.3 passes per game, the highest of midfielders in the Derby squad and does with an accuracy of 86.8%, the highest of all of the Rams players. In fact his pass accuracy is the third highest of all players in the Championship and is marginally the highest amongst players to have played more than 20 games.

Hughes has been so important for Derby this season, starting 33 games and appearing as a substitute twice, although an injury has kept him out of late. For such trust to be placed in such a young player is something of a rarity and it speaks volumes of the way that Hughes conducts himself on the pitch, he plays with a level of responsibility shown by the fact he misplaces so few of his passes and is dispossessed just 1.7 times per game. Add to that the fact that he is making 2.9 tackles per game, the joint 7th highest in the division, and you begin to get a sense of the fact that Hughes is a complete midfielder and doesn’t shirk his defensive responsibilities. With that come the fact that he commits more fouls, an average of 1.5 per game, which is something he can look to improve on, although it does show his determination and passion, qualities that are often overlooked in footballers.

Hughes’ influence on the game is shown by the fact that he has provided 5 assists so far this season and scored 3 goals himself. His goal return is impressive given that he averages just 1.1 shots per game, whilst he is creating 1.6 chances for his teammates per game. There’s so much potential in his game, you can imagine how those figures might grow exponentially if he was playing at a top club.

The fact that he plays a lot of passes and that many of them are short, indicates that even when he is not directly influencing the game he is helping Derby keep the ball and contributing to the fact that Derby have the third highest average possession in the Championship, similarly they have the third best passing accuracy. There’s no doubt that those figures have been heavily impacted on by Hughes’ performances but also they show why he’s been judged to be the best young player in the Championship: Derby play in a manner which suits the way that Hughes play.

Whilst Hughes’ statistics are impressive, and there’s no doubt in the fact that they are, what they represent is far more the potential that he has as a player. It’s also worth noting that he’s playing with, and more importantly against, players who have much more experience than him. To be doing so well, especially in such a competitive and important part of the pitch shows just how good he can become. That said, a big money move would place a lot of pressure and expectation on him, for Hughes the best scenario is probably promotion with Derby and a chance to acclimatise to the Premier League. If not, he needs to ensure he will be given ample chance to progress and impress in the top division, here’s hoping that he does so.


Statistics courtesy of whoscored.com

Wednesday, 2 April 2014

Champions League Review: Possession Isn't Everything

If Tuesday’s Champions League games revealed anything it’s that there is more to the game of football than possession. Both games ended in 1-1 draws but the parallels don’t stop there, Bayern had 74% possession and pass accuracy of 91% against Manchester United, whilst Barcelona had 71% possession and 90% pass accuracy against Atletico Madrid.

Despite Ryan Giggs’ protestations Manchester United were clearly underdogs ahead of the tie with the newly crowned German champions. Such has been Bayern’s dominance this season that many claimed it’d be a question of how many rather than what the result itself would be. Given the injuries that United faced it’s hardly surprising that this was the view that many took, but perhaps more surprising that it wasn’t the outcome.    

Although United looked particularly vulnerable out wide early on they grew into the game and should have gone in to the lead when Danny Welbeck was presented with a one on one but opted to chip Neuer when a less cultured finish might have beaten the German keeper. It was United who took the lead, with a Vidic header from a Rooney corner, it showcased Bayern’s vulnerability and their use of zonal could be a weakness Moyes looks to exploit in the second leg.

The lead only lasted 8 minutes when substitute Mandzukic knocked down a Robben cross for Schweingsteiger to rifle the ball past De Gea. The scorer’s impact on the game did not finish there, he received a second yellow card, meaning he will miss the second leg and while Bayern have a multitude of talented midfielders to call on his experience will be missed.  It was nice to see Rooney not react to Schewiengsteiger’s claims he dived, the England man just shrugged nonchalantly, Rooney is beginning to show the experience he has.

Bayern had 16 shots, but just 3 of them were on target whilst the United defence managed to get in the way of half their attempts, blocking 8 shots. Despite having almost 3 times less possession United had more shots on target (4) from their considerably fewer (6) attempts. United also restricted Bayern to shots from long range, half their shots came from outside the area, compared to just 17% of United’s ( although that is skewed by the small sample size of 6).

It’s interesting that Bayern opted for Guardiola as a coach, given how last year Bayern tore what was essentially his Barca team apart, 7-0 on aggregate. The result signified a shift in power, an indicator that possession may not be the best way to win games and that a quick counter pressing game was more effective. However, Bayern seem to have taken a step back, their game is now heavily reliant on possession and although Guardiola claimed they were to be a plan A-Z team and not just a plan A team like his Barca were, last night didn’t show that. He has removed the fluidity and pace which made last season’s Bayern so ominous.

Against possession based play teams will park the bus and play on the counter and last night illustrated that it was just as effective a way to play. Bayern played 701 short passes, at times in places it wasn’t necessary, United were happy to let them have the ball in their own half and only really became concerned when they neared the final third. But when they presses Bayern they didn’t look comfortable on the ball, particularly not Neuer who skewed a few clearances whilst being closed down.

Guardiola’s former club Barcelona could only manage a 1-1 draw at home to La Liga leaders Atletico and their away goal will have Simeone’s men believing they can reach the semi-finals. Especially as Pique is now out for 4 weeks added to the lengthy lay-off facing Valdes. Earlier in the season Simeone said he doesn’t care about possession and last night illustrated that. Atletico are very effective at what they do, their defence is one of the best in the world right now and going forward they have the players capable of doing damage. Whislt a lot of the goal scoring onus has fallen on Diego Costa this season, his hamstring injury last night could be bad news for Atletico’s title and Champions league dreams.


Barca managed 19 shots but just 6 on target, whereas Atletico had 2 of their 6 attempts on target. The statistics are remarkably similar to the United Bayern game, but whereas Atletico will fancy their chances going in to the second leg it’s take a brave man to back United to go through against Bayern.

Statistics courtesy of whoscored.com

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Martinez continues to dream of the Champions League

Everton’s 3-0 win away at Newcastle on Tuesday moved them on to 57 points, 6 clear of 7th placed Manchester United with a game in hand, meaning Roberto Martinez looks to have succeeded in attaining European football at the first time of asking. However, Martinez and Everton could be forgiven for looking ahead and dreaming of the Champions League.

Arsenal, currently occupy the 4th Champions League position and although they were until recently considered title contenders they look to have lost the early season momentum which saw them tipped by a few as dark horses for the league.  Despite that, Everton are just 6 points behind with a game in hand, win that and the gap is just three. Add to that the fact that Arsenal have to travel to Goodison Park next Sunday and suddenly it isn’t so unreasonable for Everton to dream of playing in Europe’s premier competition.

 Everton have been a fresh of air under Martinez, with an average of 56% possession and 83% passing accuracy. A transition that many expected given Martinez’s style of play at Wigan, but one that few would have expected could have gone so well.

Everton have won their last 4 games in the Premier League, in the last two the contribution of Ross Barkley has been vital to their success. Scoring in both of the games, a close range header which turned out to be the winner against Swansea and a wonderful solo effort against Newcastle, Barkley has brought his total for the season to 6.

His goal against Swansea demonstrated positional maturity which will only develop in the coming years if he continues to be given chances, whilst the one against Newcastle highlighted his confidence and ability on the ball. Barkley makes an average of 2.3 dribbles per game and his skill on the ball, not only that but teams aren’t sure how to stop him once he gets going shown by the fact that he is fouled on average 2.2 times each game. His performances this season have been enough to suggest that Barkley will be in Roy Hodgson’s world cup squad, something Martinez certainly believes.

Barkely’s performances will in doubt have been helped by having the experience of Gareth Barry behind him. Shown by the fact that Barkley makes just 1.1 tackles per game, Barry sitting allows Barkley to express himself more and not be burdened by defensive responsibility. Regardless of where Everton finish at the end of the season they must surely look to make that deal a permanent one.  Barry has 3 goals and 4 assists so far this season and he too has been playing well enough to get into the world cup squad, although that is unlikely to happen. He looks to have reinvigorated his career and regular match time has seen him recapture the form of his early career.

Another of Everton’s loan players, Romelu Lukaku has been their top scorer so far this season. With 12 goals and 6 assists in 21 games so far this season, perhaps Chelsea are regretting letting the Belgian go again. Lukaku has strength, pace  and power, coupled with good feet and technical ability, to call him the heir to Drogba’s throne isn’t unreasonable. The problem for Everton next season will surely be replacing those goals, when you look at how West Brom have struggled for goals this season you can see how they’ve failed to fill the void, and they aren’t competing in Europe as Everton surely will be next season. To replace Lukaku will not be easy and certainly won’t be cheap, although the attraction of European football would be a bonus.

Whether it’s Europa League or Champions League Everton will be flying the flag for England in Europe next season and will be hooping they can have as much success there as they have in the Premier League. Although, perhaps they should look at the plight of Swansea this season and proceed with an element of trepidation. 


 Statistics courtesy of whoscored.com

Thursday, 20 March 2014

Flannagan prospers as Liverpool push for the title

Much has been made of Liverpool’s recent form and their push for the title, whilst plaudits have regularly been rained on Suarez, Sturridge and Sterling, it is another young player who deserves more credit than he is getting.

Jon Flannagan has made 14 appearances for Liverpool so far this season, an increasing number of which have been in recent weeks. He has played 7 times at left back and 7 times at right back, highlighting his versatility. More recently he’s been employed at left back, with Glen Johnson playing in his preferred right back position. Whilst Flannagan’s chances were initially born out of necessity, with injuries to Johnson, Enrique and Sakho providing the chance, he has seized the opportunity with both hands and does not look out of his depth at the highest level. Flannagan is giving Rogers a selection nightmare when Enrique does return from injury, on current form it’ll be hard to leave the youngster out.

The 21 year old is making 3.6 tackles per game and an average of 1.6 interceptions whenever he plays. An area on which he could look to build on is his discipline, conceding an average of 1.4 fouls per game, isn’t the worst but it could certainly be improved. With a higher number of tackles, you’d expect a greater number of fouls as a general rule.

Flannagan is dribbled past on average 1.8 times per game, that’s pretty good for a full back. For comparison Southampton’s Luke Shaw is dribbled past just 0.6 times per game, but also makes fewer tackles (1.9) so maybe Flannagan dives in too often, making him easier to get past. Also it’s likely that teams will target what they see as a weak spot, but against Manchester United neither Mata nor Januzaj could get anything out of the left back.

Another reason for Shaw’s superior statistics is likely to be his strength, making him harder to get past, Flannagan at times looks a bit weak, which is perhaps shown by the fact he has won just 1.2 aerial duels per game (compared to Shaw’s 1.9). Full backs generally win less headers since fewer long balls are played out wide.
                                                                                                                                                                    In Premier League games in which Flannagan has played Liverpool have lost just two (Arsenal and Hull), compared to three when he hasn’t been in the team. Whilst it’s fair to say that that record isn’t entirely down to Flannagan, and depends on the teams Liverpool have been playing, as well as other absentees and a handful of other factors, it’s interesting to note and not completely worth ignoring. The reason for the form is more likely to be that Flannagan’s inclusion has coincided with a settled back four and the defensive stability that adds is so crucial (and often overlooked).

Going forward Flannagan adds another dimension to the Liverpool attack, whilst he isn’t as adventurous as Glen Johnson, full backs pushing on has been a consistent feature of Liverpool’s style of play under Rogers. Flannagan has one goal to his name so far this season, which is in fact more than Glen Johnson, but has an average of just 0.4 shots per game and 0.1 crosses per game. Given that Liverpool aren’t the tallest team going forward, perhaps the small number of crosses shouldn’t surprise us, similarly there are many more accomplished finishers in the team so Flannagan can hardly be blamed for passing to others to let them have a shot.

Unsurprisingly for a player in a Brendan Rogers team, Flannagan has high pass accuracy (81.4%) and makes on average 37.6 passes per game. Rogers’ philosophy is based on building possession from the back and dominating games and these figures fit in well with that style of play. As does the fact that he only plays 1.7 long balls on average per game.

The fact that Liverpool have chosen not to make the loan move of Aly Cissokho permanent speaks volumes of Rogers' faith in Flannagan. Jon Flannagan is certainly a bright young prospect and Liverpool will be hoping he continues to develop at this current rate, if he does the Merseysider will be a favourite of the Kop for years to come. 

Statistics courtesey of whoscored.com


Wednesday, 19 March 2014

AVB to ZSP: the size of the job facing Villas-Boas at Zenit

Former Porto, Chelsea and Spurs manager Andre Villas-Boas has been announced as the manager of Russian club Zenit St Petersburg on a two year contract. AVB, who has been out of work since his sacking from Spurs in late 2013, will take charge of the Russian club on 20th March, following their Champions League tie away at Dortmund.

Since the return from the lengthy winter break in Russia, Zenit are without a win. A draw at home to relegation threatened Tom Tomsk and 1-0 defeat at the hands of 5th place CSKA Moscow has seen Zenit relinquish first place to Lokomotiv. Lokomotiv are now 3 points clear of Zenit with the other 3 Moscow clubs right behind them, Spartak are on 40 points just 1 behind Zenit and Dinamo Moscow have 39 points. Zenit cannot afford anymore slip ups if they wish to be playing Champions League football next season, with only the top two clubs qualifying in the Russian Premier League.

With a 4-2 deficit to overturn it is likely that Villas-Boas will not have to worry about fixture congestion as a result of European competition, but given the lengthy winter break fixture congestion will be inevitable in the coming months. 

Given the importance of qualifying for the Champions League and winning the Premier League it is perhaps not surprising that Zenit chose to part company with former manager Spalleti, who had been in charge since 2009. It does seem like a snap decision given the relatively strong position Zenit are in and given that a period of adjustment would be expected following AVB’s arrival.

Zenit’s squad boasts the attacking talents of Hulk, who Villas-Boas worked with at Porto, Danny and Kerzhakov. As well as former Arsenal player Arshavin, highly rated Belgian Axel Witsel, and a handful of Russian internationals.

Hulk is without a doubt Zenit’s biggest star and it could be said there is a sense of pandering to him in appointing a coach he worked so well under at Porto. If Zenit don’t qualify for the Champions League, then there’ll be no shortage of suitors for the Brazilian, particularly if he has a good World Cup.

Hulk has 9 goals in 15 games, a total only surpassed by Portugese international Danny who has managed 10 in one game more. Danny also has more assists (7) than Hulk, he has the highest in the squad and second highest in the league. As Hulk is generally the focal point of the attack that could explain why he has less assists. Hulk has the most shots per game, with 4.2, not only in the Zenit team but in the league as well. That illustrates the point, Hulk can at some times be selfish, but his technical ability does merit it.

Their problem this season has not been offensively, scoring 40 goals in 21 games, the highest in the league by 1 goal, but defensively. Zenit have conceded 21 goals, an average of one per game, league leaders Lokomotiv have conceded 4 less. Zenit concede 13 shots per game, so it’s hardly surprising that they are conceding quite a lot of goals. This brings more clarity to the decision to point Villas-Boas, given his reputation for making his teams defensively solid and relying on moments of brilliance to win games.

However, defensively there is a lack of strength of depth in the Zenit squad. Only the experienced Belgian Nicolas Lombaerts has played more than 15 games (18) and no defender has been ever present so far. A consistent back four would be a considerable advantage in adding some much needed solidity and would go a long way to stopping some of Zenit’s frailties.

Andre Villas-Boas has a chance to rebuild his reputation in Russia away from the prying eyes of Europe’s elite. If he can stop the poor form that Zenit are currently experiencing and get them back to winning ways, a title could well follow. If not and the poor form continues AVB will be hard pressed to find such a good job again, hopefully though he can turn things around.

Statistics courtesy of whoscored.com



  

Sunday, 16 March 2014

Ings and Vokes firing Burnley towards the Premier League

The step up from the Championship to the Premier League is one that more than a few players have struggled with, the transition is particularly tough on strikers, and the quality of Premier League defences is a level above those in England’s second tier.

With Burnley sitting in second in the Championship, 10 points clear of second place Derby, they could be forgiven for starting to think about automatic promotion and adapting to Premier League life once more.

Central to that promotion charge have been the goals of Danny Ings, the 21 year old English striker. He is currently the second highest scorer in the division, with 20 goals, 2 more than strike partner Sam Vokes. The league’s deadliest strike force has 38 goals in 36 games between them.

Ings is also edging it in terms of assists too, with 5 to Vokes’ 4, despite his marginally superior statistics Ings has played two game less than Vokes who has featured in all of Burnley’s 36 league games so far this season. The fact that the two have played so much this season says a lot about their form but also Burnley’s reliance on them and with the news that Ings has picked up an injury against Birmingham on Tuesday, the goal scoring burden will now fall on Vokes.

Vokes, who’s aerial strength is something that teams have struggled to contain, winning an average of 7.2 headers per game. His strength in the air is part of the reason why his passing accuracy is so low (54.1%), as a general rule headers are harder to accurately place than passes. 

Vokes has experience in the Premier League with Wolves, however in those 3 seasons he made no starts and just 11 substitute appearances. Given that he played so infrequently it’s hardly surprising Vokes failed to score a Premier League goal. That said, the experience of being at a Premier League club, even if he isn’t playing is something that should stand him in good stead. That experience may be limited but it is more than Ings has.

Vokes averages 2.7 shots per game, less than Ings (3.3) that could be used to suggest that Vokes is more clinical than his strike partner, however, there’s very little in their statistics.

As an individual Ings is probably the better of the two players. He has scored more goals and more assists, but the true strength of their strike partnership is just that. Together they are better than either of them are individually, Vokes’ aerial and general strength are well complemented by Ings’ creativity. 

Ings is perhaps more flexible, he has also been employed as an attacking midfielder, in behind Vokes. In this situation Vokes is able to occupy the defenders creating space which INgs can occupy with devastating effect.


If Burnley are promoted Ings and Vokes will  be central to their success and vital if they are to survive, although they will certainly need to strength and some experience may well be required. If Burnley do not get promotion there’ll be no end of potential suitors for Ings and Vokes too. Either way, expect Danny Ings to be plying his trade in the Premier League next season. 

Statistics courtesy of whoscored.com

Thursday, 13 March 2014

QPR place faith in Morrison

QPR posted losses of £65 m since June 2013, it’s hardly surprising given the club’s relegation from the Premier League and the frankly shambolic transfer policy of spending big on distinctly average, or past their best players. That coupled with shaky form making an immediate return to England’s top tier all the less likely have led to some questioning whether or not Harry Redknapp will be at the helm next season.

Redknapp showed a brilliantly shrew move in the loan signing of Ravel Morrison from West Ham. Morrison, who was subject of a bid from Fulham, given several good performances when chances to start presented themselves due to injuries and suspensions at West Ham, is one of the brightest young talents in English football. That’s not the best part of the signing though, given that emergency loan signings only last for 93 days, Redknapp delayed Morrison’s signing, ensuring that the player would be available for the play-off final, should QPR reach it.

That says a lot about the faith that Redknapp has in Morrison, that he thinks he is good enough to play in such an important match, should it be required. But perhaps it says more about where QPR are at the moment.

Given their strength in depth QPR were hotly tipped to bounce back to the Premier League, however, since the turn of the year they’ve seen the hopes of automatic promotion fade quickly, in part due to an excellent run from Leicester, but not entirely without faults of their own.

Morrison has now made 4 appearances for the R’s and scored 2 goals, both of which came in Saturday’s win over Birmingham. His goals included a well-placed free kick from the edge of the area and a cool finish from just inside the area placed into the bottom corner, in his relatively short career Morrison has shown he has the ability to be a top class finisher, his goals against Spurs and in training for England showed just how good he is.

It’s hardly surprising that with 3.3 shots per game so far for QPR that Morrison has been in and around the goals, fans will be hoping he can convert a few more chances in the race for promotion.

He has an impressive pass accuracy of 91.5%, the highest in the squad, and has average 44 passes per game in his stint at QPR. Of those, 1.8 per game have been passes which have created chances. That’s an area where he needs to improve and at times be less selfish, which is further demonstrated by his lack of assists for his new club. 

Since he joined Morrison has played almost every minute for QPR, demonstrating just how vital Redknapp thinks he is to the team.

Morrison’s defensive contribution is particularly weak, with no interceptions, less than one (0.5) tackles per game and 1.3 fouls committed per game. More and more is becoming expected of forward thinking players defensively, so if Morrison wants to make it at the highest level it’s something he’ll have to look to add to his game. This is why he can’t be played in a deeper role, which will hamper his chances once he returns to West Ham, given that club captain Kevin Nolan occupies the role behind Andy Carroll, and their partnership is one that Allardyce will not want to disrupt.


There’s no doubt that Morrison has an immense amount of talent, but if he is to become one of the best in the world he needs to add a few things to his game (namely more defensive contribution), which may require an adjustment of his attitude. Hopefully, the extra responsibility and reliance Harry Redknapp and QPR are placing in the youngster will go some way to correcting this. This could well be the experience that determines the trajectory of Ravel Morrison’s career.

Statistics courtesy of whoscored.com