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Salah, Wan-Bissaka, and simulation

Breaking down the weekend's defending points of interest

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Mark Thompson

Apr 16 2019

8 mins read

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Hello, it’s good to see you again (or, if this is your first visit, glad to meet you). I’m gonna briefly plug a data visualisation I did and liked and then get right into the good stuff.

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Nifty.

Anyway, on with the defending:

  • Stopping Salah’s magic strike?
  • Eden Hazard up-front vs on the wing
  • Dean Saunders on Aaron Wan-Bissaka — dissected
  • The Diver’s Paradox (let me know what you think!)

Stopping Salah’s magic strike?

So, I’m sure we’ve all seen the video of Mohamed Salah’s goal against Chelsea at the weekend. It was pretty unstoppable.

I was watching it again and noticed something though.

The goal starts with Salah faced with Chelsea left-back Emerson.

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He cuts inside, and Emerson can’t quite turn inside quick enough, and it’s clear that Salah has basically beaten him.

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So Emerson kinda gives up and peels off to go back to his usual position.

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This forces Jorginho to, quite late, come across to meet Salah. I think it’s an understandable decision from Emerson, given that there’s a Liverpool player on their right wing/Chelsea’s left (barely visible on-screen) and we all know how strict Maurizio Sarri’s positional system is.

There’s also no way Emerson can know Salah’s about to pull out the shot of his life.

By the time that he does, Salah has a fair amount of space around him. Jorginho is closing, but Salah is so committed to his striking motion by the point of the below screenshot that the pressure the Chelsea midfielder will be applying won’t affect the Egyptian.

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Now, if Emerson had carried on jockeying Salah, just running slightly behind him to track him, tugging slightly at his arm, would Salah have hit such a good strike?

I think no. (But I don’t know — with various data companies now offering varying degrees of information on how much pressure a shooter was under, we’ll likely be able to quantify this somewhat in the relatively near future, I imagine).

I should say that I probably wouldn’t be asking this question if Salah’s shot hadn’t gone in. I’m definitely not blaming Emerson either. But I think it’s something interesting to think about.

I’d be interested on hearing what others think about this too — whether Emerson peeling off was an understandable decision or whether the better option would be to stay with Salah, even if his shot had gone wildly off target. Tweet me @EveryTeam_Mark (or reply to this email if you’re a subscriber)

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Eden Hazard up-front vs on the wing

I realised, when Eden Hazard moved to the left, that it’s really obvious why he should be there and never play as striker again. He’s one of the best players in the league at beating a player one-on-one. He has such great touch and such an amazing control of his balance that he can decide at the very last split-second whether to go left or right depending on whether, for example, his feint has fooled the defender into committing one way or the other.

How many strikers do you see taking players on one-on-one like this?

Exactly. (Hazard averages 4.46 successful take-ons per game; the closest ‘true striker’ in the Premier League is Harry Kane, who averages 1.55).

Now, Hazard also has the capability to make the type of great runs that a striker does (see: his two major chances in the match, particularly the second one). However, giving him the freedom to play (nominally) on the left and float between that and a second striker position means he can use both of his big gifts at once. Just as a striker, you cut down on the opportunities to use his talents significantly.

Dean Saunders on Aaron Wan-Bissaka — dissected

Dean Saunders (former Wales striker and current UK pundit, for those outside the UK) critiqued Aaron Wan-Bissaka’s game on Talksport radio on Monday. The clip got shared by the radio station beginning with a quote from Saunders: “You’ve got to be able to defend, if you want to play for the top 6.” https://twitter.com/talkSPORT/status/1117472584189337601

Wan-Bissaka, at just 21, is considered by many as one of the best defensive full-backs in the league, so of course the Twitter reaction was to say that Saunders doesn’t know what he’s talking about.

“For me, he’s a bit too upright, he dives in a lot when he could just jockey, there’s certain technical things--,” Saunders then tangents a bit about showing Wan-Bissaka on video or on the training ground.

“When that winger’s taking you on he’s standing a bit upright, any sport your position of strength is sort of in a wrestling position [Saunders mimes crouching], your chin’s, your weight’s above the front of your toes, so that allows you to push off.

“Sometimes when the winger picks the ball up he crosses his feet when he’s backpedalling and he ends up getting squared up and diving in. Sometimes he doesn’t end up getting to the winger as quick as he should do so he sort of gets in his space and gets a bit of contact on him and gets an arm on him.

It’s easy to sort out, but he has to make the winger go where he wants him to go. I think he lets wingers run at him sometimes and he doesn’t show them where he wants them to go.”

That’s a lot of technical detail for someone who’s been derided as not knowing what he’s talking about. Yes, Wan-Bissaka has great figures, but looking through some clips I can see what Saunders means in some cases.

For one example, this is Wan-Bissaka against Heung-Min Son recently. The right-back is chasing Son down the wing.

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Son arrives near the corner flag and Wan-Bissaka manages to get himself — as Saunders noted — quite square and upright.

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Son duly manages to get around the defender, and looks like he’s got the opportunity to drive into space and arrive near the box.

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Wan-Bissaka has other ideas though. He makes up the ground surprisingly easily and gets a well-timed leg across to knock it out for a corner.

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Now, I don’t think that Wan-Bissaka gets squared up as often as Saunders suggests. I would agree that he’s often surprisingly upright when one-on-one, although (for the moment, at least) it doesn’t seem to be doing him any harm.

As for the letting wingers have space, I think it’s a similar approach to how Virgil van Dijk operates in the centre of the pitch. Both leave space and refrain from committing, both judge the space they give and amount that they (slowly) close down well, both seem to be very good at putting on a burst of pace to match the forward and get a leg across to tackle.

I dunno. This wasn’t so much saying that Saunder was right, just that he went into a rare amount of technical detail for a mainstream pundit (especially one getting pummelled for his comments on Twitter). Let’s at least assess what he was actually critiquing.

Let me know what you think on Twitter

The Diver’s Paradox

In the FA Cup semi-final between Reading and West Ham on Sunday, Reading’s Jo Potter was denied a penalty and booked for simulation for what I’m going to start calling ‘Diver’s Paradox’.

Unfortunately, because the women’s version of the competition gets less coverage, I’m not able to find a clip, but it’s the kind of thing we’ve all seen a lot before. A challenge came in from a West Ham defender, Potter dived over it. The distance – physically and temporally – between the challenge and the dive was large enough to be noticeable, at least.

There seems to be a category of ‘diving/not diving’ events where a forward begins their dive early because they think a tackle’s going to come in. Most of the time it does, but moments where a forward dives to evade a phantom tackle do happen.

I think that you can probably think of them in a similar way to obstruction. It’s generally ok for a player to step a cross or block off a run if they’re shielding the ball, but if they’re just looking to knock the striker out of the way then it’s a foul. Likewise, if a player dives to evade a heavy challenge coming in, that’s fine, but if their intent is to dive rather than to continue playing the ball then it’s a type of dive.

This is kind of where Diver’s Paradox comes in. Potter’s ‘dive’ looked like she’d chosen to dive instead of try and play the ball. However, the challenge would have been a foul if she hadn’t already decided to dive. By pre-determining the dive, she made a foul tackle not a foul.

This is my way of thinking about it at least, and I’m interested in what others think about it. Tweet me @EveryTeam_Mark (or if you’re a subscriber you can reply to this email), and I’ll have a little mailbag section in next week’s newsletter with some responses.

‘Til the next time

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‘Til the next time :)

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