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When does good defending end in an own goal?

Liverpool, Manchester City, and how not to counter-attack.

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Mark Thompson

Mar 19 2019

9 mins read

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^^ You can share this email as a web link by hitting that square with the arrow ^^. Don’t hesitate to share bits of this that you like, all I’d ask is you link back.

I opened the last newsletter, the debut, by saying I was flattered by the interest in this, and the way that one went over, I’ve got to say it again. Eventually it’ll get boring (or the interest will dry up… I hope not).

Anyway, I’m pretty confident that this one’s even better than the first, but please let me know what you do or don’t like, or what you’d like to see more of. I believe that you can reply to the emails, and many of you will probably follow me on Twitter @EveryTeam_Mark.

Anyway, let’s get to it. In today’s post:

  • How to move your feet, with Joel Matip
  • Deconstructing the best goal Swansea City, or anyone, has ever scored
  • How not to counter-attack, with Schalke
  • Writing about data, and a matter of trust
  • ‘Til the next time

How to move your feet, with Joel Matip

Joel Matip was unlucky to have an own goal next to his name in the Champions League second leg on Wednesday. The goal’s been covered a lot but, after Andrew Robertson got suckered in by Serge Gnabry’s ‘drop deep then go long’ move, it all just went right for Bayern.

Gnabry’s cross spins off his foot, under Virgil van Dijk’s outstretched leg, skids off the turf, and if Matip doesn’t touch it, Robert Lewandowski behind him almost certainly will.

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I’m trying to avoid over-analysing it and playing the ‘in hindsight’ game, because that’s never a good way to analyse football.

However, I think, arguably, Matip doing something well contributed – in this case – to the own goal.

As he and Lewandowski run into the box, the Bayern striker gives a slight shove to get some separation, which is perfectly fine.

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As the pair approach the six-yard box, Lewandowski uses the fact he’s no longer in touching distance to make a dart behind Matip.

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Matip, though, is an intelligent defender. He’s either looking for the run and sees it in his peripheral vision, or just has a great instinct that that’s what Lewandowski is going to do. Whichever it is, he matches it.

Because of the camera angle, it’s hard to see Matip’s body at this stage, so I’ve sketched over a skeleton of where all his limbs are and stuff.

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Because he’s now matching Lewandowski’s movement towards the middle of the goal, though, that’s now the way that his body and hips are facing. It’s possible that failing to match Lewandowski’s movement would have meant he and his hips would be turned slightly more towards where Gnabry is, might have meant he’d connect with the cross earlier, and might have meant he’d have a better chance directing it away from goal.

Lots of ‘might’s.

I digress. What I actually wanted to show was this. I actually forget which Bayern player this is driving into the box, but watch how light Matip’s feet are and how often they move. (The mass of green is to try and reduce the gif size and highlight the important info, I’m still working on this as I’m aware it has a certain Roobarb and Custard vibe, but it did reduce the gif size a lot).

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Deconstructing the best goal Swansea City, or anyone, have ever scored

You may be able to tell that I’m pretty enamoured with this goal. It’s one of the few where I feel a spoilsport trying to analyse the defending on it. If you’ve not seen it, please find a non-geo restricted clip of it (goalscorer: Bersant Celina; minute: 29’).

It ended with a 4-on-3 for Swansea, which you don’t get against Manchester City without playing efficiently and quickly through their press. Swansea managed to play from the goalkeeper to a dropping midfielder, and then from him to eventual scorer Celina, cutting through the majority of City’s team.

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I think that the key is Bernardo Silva, circled below. Riyad Mahrez, who ends up chasing to put pressure on the dropping midfielder, had been covering the sideways pass to a Swansea defender (almost off-screen to the right).

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It’s hard to tell by TV pictures, but as the view pans as the move progresses, Silva doesn’t seem to be picking up anyone obvious, and he also fails to cut off the pass into Celina, which goes inside him to his left.

Celina then plays his pass and makes his run (below), putting on a burst of pace that Gundogan doesn’t seem physically able to match. It’s now a Swansea 4-on-3.

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As the wide player cuts to his right and moves inside, I’ve tried to think about what City’s players could have done differently. The big thing I wondered was whether Aymeric Laporte and Fabian Delph (see below) were covering too little space between them. They end up basically covering one man between them, and I wondered whether Laporte could have moved to City’s right sooner. However, I think he was pinned by the potential pass B (below).

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‘A’ is the pass actually played; Delph isn’t fully back yet so Laporte can’t vacate pass ‘B’. ‘C’ would have been gloriously showy (and unlikely), a backheel to the overlapping Celina. (Thinking about it, it also would’ve been easier to cover: the ‘A’ pass caused Laporte to halt and ground himself, whereas with ‘C’ he’d have started to move over straight away).

The only thing I can think City could’ve done differently is if Delph had moved inside instead of trying to get back to the conventional left-back position. (Nicolas Otamendi diving in for a slide tackle on Daniel James was blatantly a silly decision but I don’t think that staying on his feet would’ve prevented the goal as it happened).

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At the very least, it would have meant City were covering three men instead of two, and added an extra body to the middle of the pitch.

How not to counter-attack, with Schalke

A brief departure from defending, but it’s all just a flip side of the same coin.

Schalke didn’t get much chance to attack in their second leg against Manchester City, but they did have a few forays. Unfortunately for them, they didn’t do much with it, as exemplified by this counter-attack.

They break (another break against City, hmmm) and have a 3-on-3 or 3-on-4 depending on if you count the chasing Oleksandr Zinchenko among City’s defenders.

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So far, so good. But as they get closer to goal, they’re grouping together, barely stretching the three defenders at all.

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A counter-attack is your opportunity, as an attacker, to put the defenders in impossible situations. By sticking close together and going on basic runs, they’ve contained themselves.

The Schalke attacker on the left of the attack makes a run inside, between Kyle Walker at right-back and Nicolas Otamendi in the middle. It’s fine enough, I suppose. But because he’s so close to the rest of the action, it’s easy for Walker to cover.

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If we roll the action back, we can look at some things that the attacker could have done.

The player’s big problem is that he neither stretched the play by moving wider, which would’ve created more space for the man on the ball to get past Otamendi, nor did he make Walker’s life difficult by operating in the defender’s blind-side.

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What he could have done was move wider, where Walker can’t see him, and then make the run inside (A); or stay just in Walker’s vision and then make a dart behind him to the outside. Instead, it was a relatively easy counter to defend.

Writing about data, and a matter of trust

My day job involves me writing about football. Sometimes it’s for clients (such as this piece about Manchester United’s centre-back duo of Victor Lindelof and Chris Smalling), other times it’s writing kinda detailed and kinda niche data stuff, like this on goalkeepers starting to pass the ball more like Manuel Neuer.

I started off in the thick of the online analytics community, doing ‘proper’ (it was bad) work investigating defensive statistics. I now write several pieces a day for an audience who may not even know what goes into an expected goals model, let alone have tried to knock a simple one up themselves.

Most people, and most articles, don’t have the headspace for differentiating between various expected goals models. While the difference between pre- and post-shot expected goals models can make an interesting story, you often have to explain both to normal people.

This is a tangential way of saying that, not long ago, I’d have jumped on an article that wasn’t clear about what sort of expected goals model it was using – pre- or post-shot, open-play or including set-pieces, etc.

In fact, not long ago, Opta released an article where they talked about goalkeeper. They didn’t refer to specifics of the expected goals model, and we the analytics public jumped on the chance to point out that maybe they should have used a post-shot expected goals model, which only looks at shots on target and is therefore a better way to judge goalkeepers.

Turned out they’d been using that anyway.

Now, an article from Opta is aimed at an audience who can probably take a brief explanation of the model involved, but not every audience can. Sometimes it makes a better article being less technical, or less thorough in explaining every caveat.

If I leave that out, will those more au fait with statistics take it as read that I’m using the best model for the job, because of my track record? Hopefully. What about one of the other writers at Football Whispers? What about someone just starting out, who knows their stuff but is just writing for a wider audience?

Questions, questions, for which I have no answers, but wanted to ponder as it’s likely to come up more often in the next few years.

‘Til the next time

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‘Til the next time

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