Between the Lines

"Of all unimportant subjects, football is the most important" – Pope John Paul II

Archive for October, 2009

The Best Team Unlikely to Win the World Cup (and so is England)

Posted by hakanrylander on October 30, 2009

At the recent World Cup qualifier in Ukraine a poll among the English journalists present showed that one third believe that Brazil will eventually win the trophy, one third predict that England will lift the cup and one third think that someone else will. To most self-appointed analysts outside England (including this correspondent) this is a ridiculous exaggeration of England’s prospects. It now turns out that science has (kind of) proved that the sceptics are correct.

In a paper published in the October issue of Journal of Applied Statistics G. K. Skinner and G. H. Freeman conclude that the best team (which I would say is Spain, few would say it’s England) has a probability of only 28% of winning the cup, if it reaches the last 16. In reality the probability is lower since there is always a danger of being knocked out at the group stage. And the probability of England winning is again even lower, but the study doesn’t specify just how low.

The basis for their conclusions is the simple fact that the outcome of any football match is uncertain. The best team doesn’t always win. And in the knock-out stages you need to win four straight games to win the cup. In the latest World Cup only 5 games out of 64 had scores that indicated that you (or a gathering of statisticians) could be pretty certain (better than 90% confidence) that the best team won.

Are soccer matches badly designed experiments? by G. K. Skinner and G. H. Freeman (Journal of Applied Statistics).



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Our rock is crumbling before our very eyes

Posted by hakanrylander on October 27, 2009

For the last three seasons United’s success (including three consecutive PL-titles) has to a large extent been built on the solid foundation of Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic. This season the partnership has looked rather more shaky.  But I have felt that even though this was perhaps not as insignificant as a “blip” it would still sort itself out before long. Until now. After the defeat at Anfield I now believe that central defence is turning into a long term problem.

Throughout his career Rio Ferdinand has been accused of occasionally going to sleep and lacking concentration, but this problem largely disappeared a few years ago. Lately his focus might have suffered more from all kinds of off-field activities that seem to occupy his mind. This stretches from becoming a father to editing his own magazine, involving himself in a restaurant venture and producing movies. Still the most serious problem is probably his fitness. He needs continous physiotherapy for his recurring back spasms and hasn’t been able to fully join in training for most of the season. My impression is that the doctors don’t know the root of the problem and are just treating the symptoms.

In previous seasons Nemanja Vidic has occasionally looked vulnerable to pace. This was most obvious when he was humiliated by Torres at Old Trafford last season. Three successive red cards against Liverpool/Torres is not a coincidence.  This season he seems to be in trouble more often. One example is that he was lucky not to be sent off against Wolfsburg, when he found it difficult to handle Dzeko and Grafite. Meanwhile rumours continue to surface that Vidic (or his wife) is tired of England and would prefer to live in Spain or Italy. It’s also very likely that Barcelona will be in the market for a central defender next summer.

Perhaps I’m wrong in describing our defensive rock as a partnership, when in fact Edwin van der Sar has been very much a part of it. The fact that Van der Sar has been injured for a large part of this season, and that Ben Foster has looked out of his depth has made it more difficult for Vidic and Ferdinand. It would be so much easier to ease in a new keeper if the Ferdinand-Vidic partnership was in perfect shape.

I fear that we might in fact be moving towards a scenario where Van der Sar retires, Vidic leaves for Spain and Ferdinand struggles even more with injuries. This would leave Ferguson with a major rebuilding challenge in a key area. Thank heavens for Jonny Evans.

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Time to Administer the Last Rites

Posted by hakanrylander on October 24, 2009

After losing to Lyon in mid-week, Liverpool’s CL campaign is hanging by a thread and defeat against United at Anfield tomorrow would leave their hopes of a PL title dead and buried. It seems a timely moment for United to adminster the last rites to their rivals.

This could, however, prove tricky. Tomorrow’s game is much more crucial to Liverpool than to United, and more often than not the more motivated side tend to get the upper hand. My prediction is that Liverpool will dominate the first half after which a customary hairdryer will reinstate United to the driving seat.

It’s possible that injuries will play a major part in deciding the game. Torres, Gerrard, Rooney and Fletcher are all doubtful. These four player’s have arguably been the most influential for their respective clubs this season, and game plans will be affected quite significantly if some or all of them are absent. My guess is that both clubs are using smoke screens and that all four players will start tomorrow.

David Pleat makes a good point in today’s Guardian about the need for Liverpool to speed up their passing. This is easier said than done, but whatch out for the other point that Pleat is making, namely that Liverpool will use crosses from the left to the back post to try to exploit Evra’s weakness in the air.

One of Liverpool’s major failings this season has been their inability to defend set pieces. United could therefore go 4-5-1 to control the midfield and look to score mainly from free kicks and corners. The downside is that this risks leaving Rooney or Berbatov isolated up front. With Rooney and Berbatov in tandem we have a much better chance of putting Carragher under pressure, which is another obvious strategy given the number of uncharcteristic mistakes he’s making at the moment.

Finally. As penance is an important part of the last rites we can hopefully look forward to an act of contrition from Mr Benitez at the post-match press conference. Something along these lines: “Oh my God I am heartily sorry for ranting about ‘facts’, tinkering obsessively with line-ups etc etc…”.

Prediction: Liverpool 0 United 1, Owen to score in the 85th minute.

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Match Report: United Reserves 3 Blackburn Reserves 0

Posted by hakanrylander on October 23, 2009

A good result for the reserves who went top of the Premier Reserve League North. But let’s face it, who cares about the result in these games? More important is to spot the individual performances that indicate whether a player is ready to move on to the first team. Or not. In this respect the game contained three positives and one negative.

United were captained by Ritchie de Laet who seems to keep up his remarkable improvement. I was particularly impressed by a couple of forward surges of the kind I would like Rio Ferdinand to make more often. Solid at the back, dangerous going forward and comfortable on the ball. I would be surprised if he doesn’t get a game against Barnsley in the Carling Cup next Tuesday.

Hopefully Gabriel Obertan will also be in that game. He played the full 90 minutes yesterday and suffered no apparent injury problems. He was involved in many of United’s best moves and combined well with King, de Laet and others. Judging from this game he’s equally comfortable on either wing or through the middle.

I’ve read a number of positive reports about Josh King, but was still surprised by how good he already is at 17. Good movement, pace and control and also linked up well with Obertan. He faded in the second half, but maybe Macheda and Welbeck will soon have to look over their shoulders.

Zoran Tosic scored a good goal from distance in added time, but otherwise again failed to impress me.  He saw a lot of the ball but ran into dead-ends most of the time. Still a long way from the first team in my opinion since he couldn’t really trouble an inexperienced Blackburn side (I didn’t recognize any of their players apart from Santa Cruz Jr). Nani drives me nuts, but I still prefer him to Tosic.

For a different angle on this game and a completely different opinion about the performance of Tosic, please check out the excellent United Youth.

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The Paganini of the restrained celebration

Posted by hakanrylander on October 22, 2009

Valencia_OwenMost people who score an 86th minute winner in a CL-game would celebrate quite wildly. But not Antonio Valencia. Instead he gave the impression of inscrutable melancholy with a hint of embarrassment. Very similar to his post-scoring behaviour against Bolton a few days earlier.

However, when he scored in the recent World Cup qualifier between Ecuador and Uruguay he couldn’t quite live up to his own high standards of restraint. He jumped over the advertising hoardings and ran into the crowd. Probably enough to earn him a booking in the PL.

So why these totally different reactions? Amateur psychology suggests that Valencia feels more at ease in the Ecuador national squad than with his new team-mates at Old Trafford. From a footballing point of view he’s very much an integral part of the team. To my mind he’s already an established member of our first XI. But maybe in a social sense he doesn’t yet feel part of the group.

The game against CSKA again confirmed how much more efficient Valencia is compared to Nani. I don’t particularly like the fact that Berbatov spent a large part of the game showing everyone how frustrated he was with Nani. But I can understand him. Another positive was the performance of Fabio who might just prove those experts right who suggested that he might be even better than his brother. A special mention also to John O’Shea who had a solid game in central midfield. Most of the time he doesn’t get the credit he deserves, but it’s brilliant to have this kind of player in the squad.

Posted in Match Reports, Player Analysis | Tagged: , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

Lookalikes of the Week

Posted by hakanrylander on October 19, 2009

Off The Post found this slightly unexpected connection. One of the most innovative football lookalikes observations I’ve seen in years.

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Quote of the Week

Posted by hakanrylander on October 15, 2009

The Economist this week takes a look at the attempts to formulate new rules in order to avoid future financial crashes similar to the one in 2008. The conclusion is that there is no archetype of success. Apart from the obvious one:

“What firms need is a culture of excellence – but that is like saying all football teams should be Manchester United.”

Posted in Financial | Tagged: , | 2 Comments »

“A youngster who could grace England’s midfield for years to come”

Posted by hakanrylander on October 14, 2009

In an article in yesterday’s Daily Telegraph, their Football Correspondent  Henry Winter claims that we have “a gem” and future England star in our academy.

“There is also a wonderfully skilful but wayward youngster at United’s academy who could grace England’s midfield for years to come – but only if he responds to Ferguson’s intelligent guidance. If Ferguson can rein him in, United and England have a gem.”

This is extraordinary praise from one of Britain’s top football writers. Most likely he’s refering to Ravel Morrison who is a 16-year-old midfielder/winger playing for United’s Under-18’s. The official site describes him as “a skilful, creative midfielder capable of scoring and making goals”. He was recently picked in the England squad for the UEFA Under-17 qualification starting in late October.

It’s unlikely that Henry Winter watches a lot of our Under-18 games or relies only on youtube compilations. More likely his very positive assessment is based on interviews with insiders at Carrington or the FA.

Telegraph describes Morrison as “wayward”  and on different internet forums he’s rumoured to have an attitude problem and be hard to handle. More worrying is that he was caught up in a guns and drugs bust five months ago. He was in a car stopped by the police and officers are believed to have found drugs and guns in the car (at least according to the Mirror). This explains why Ferguson might need to reign him in.

I’ve previously read some positive reports on Morrison, mainly at United Youth who offers by far the best coverage of our youth teams, but following the Telegraph article it will be even more interesting to follow his progress.

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Review: Why England lose

Posted by hakanrylander on October 9, 2009

Why England loseThis book combines the skills of a top journalist with those of “Britain’s foremost sports economist” in a very successful way.  Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski give us the rare pleasure of an enjoyable read about academic subjects.

Among the topics they cover are “How to avoid silly mistakes in the transfer market”, “Why football clubs don’t make money”, “The country that loves football most” and, amazingly, “Are Manchester United really a problem?” (The answer is no.) Some of the questions they answer very convincingly, others less so, but most of the time you have fun reading their explanations. 

The best part is probably the chapter dealing with England’s lack of success. The authors start by listing eight phases to describe the traditional pattern of an England World Cup campaign. A pattern that looks very familiar to any football fan looking at England from the outside.

  1. Certainty that England will win the World Cup
  2. During the tournament England meet a former wartime enemy
  3. The English conclude that the game turned on one freakish piece of bad luck that could happen only to them
  4. Moreover, everyone else cheated
  5. England are knocked out without getting anywhere near lifting the cup
  6. The day after elimination, normal life resumes
  7. A scapegoat is found
  8. England enter the next World Cup thinking they will win it

Having beaten Croatia is of course more than enough to now place us firmly in phase eight.

Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski: Why England lose & other curious football phenomena explained (HarperCollins)

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The Spectator Who Would Be Engine Room

Posted by hakanrylander on October 6, 2009

Berba9Talented but languid, moody, lazy and disinterested. This is a brief summary of the doubters’ view of Dimitar Berbatov. A view strengthened by the fact that in between his touches of genius he sometimes looks bewildered, as if he cannot really understand why everyone else is running around so much.

Opinions about Berbatov among United fans have been divided from the outset. I’m firmly in the supporting camp. Mostly because his sublime skill and style brings something to the team that few other players have. Any game of football is invariably more enjoyable to watch if Berbatov takes part.

But during the last week I also believe that we’ve seen the beginning of another very interesting Berbatov trend. Against Wolfsburg last Wednesday we were very ineffective in the early stages and didn’t really start to play until Berbatov came on after 19 minutes. This was of course partly because his passing, movement and positioning influenced his team-mates. But there was also something about his attitude. He actually energized the team in a way that I haven’t seen him do before.

Berba8In our next game, against Sunderland, he scored a spectacular goal but this didn’t cause him to celebrate wildly or shyly acknowledge the crowd. Instead he picked the ball out of the net and ran straight back to the centre circle to get the game restarted. This is the kind of attitude previously more associated with players like Wayne Rooney or Gary Neville (who are very rarely accused of being lazy or disinterested).

Maybe from now on we will start looking at Berbatov as one of the driving forces in the engine room. If this trend continues I predict that most of his critics will be very silent by the end of this season.

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