MCFC Analytics blogposts – Summary #8

Here is the list of interesting posts I found in the past week An interesting post on home advantage and how it manifests itself into football stats by @FbPerspectives. The post also has a link to a detailed paper from 2009 on home advantage. Guardian Data blog has an interactive visualization of the Bolton – City […] Read more ›

MCFC Analytics – blogposts summary #7

I did not see too many new posts in the past week. I didn’t publish any as I was busy with a different project. An interactive viz of Bolton – Manchester City  match data by @JBurnMurdoch on @GuardianData blog @HPStats attempts at defining metrics to be able to cluster players based on their style. Here […] Read more ›

MCFC Analytics – Summary of blog posts #5

We had a great meeting this weekend to discuss how to move our community forward. We discussed some great ideas. As @MCFCGavinFleig pointed out on twitter, the next big announcements and steps forward will be public in late November/early December when the “CityAnalyticsCommunity” will be launched. Until then, keep blogging away with the data. Here […]
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MCFC Analytics – Summary of blog posts #4

It has been about a month since the basic MCFC data set has been released and it is great to see lots of people churning out stuff using both the basic and advanced data sets. Based on the tweets with #MCFCAnalytics tag, there are quite a few peoples’ projects are in progress. Good luck to […] Read more ›

MCFC Analytics – Summary of blog posts # 3

Thanks for the amazing response to Summary of blog posts #1 & Summary of blog posts #2 I also want to thank people who have reached out to me via twitter with links to their blogs & posts. Goalscorer ‘footedness’ by @DavidAHopkins measures the footedness or the foot favoured by Premier League goalscorers. How do […] Read more ›

Visualizing momentum shifts in Bolton vs. Man City

This is an attempt to visualize the momentum shifts in Bolton vs. City with goals scored and substitutions using the #MCFC analytics advanced data tier – I. I used possession as a proxy for momentum. The game is divided into 5 minute buckets. If a goal is scored in a bucket, the bucket will end […] Read more ›

The Lure of the January Fix: A Data-Based Review of Bolton’s, Everton’s, and QPR’s Transfer Strategies

By Laban Scott Libby

In a world of unrelenting pressure for results, the January transfer window offers the tempting opportunity for the quick fix. For clubs contending for the championship or Europe, it encourages the hunt for that one piece of the puzzle that will make the club complete; and for clubs fighting relegation, that one special player may seem like the difference between another year among the world’s top or a long year of away games at Barnsley and Peterborough. Because of the lure of the fix, January transfer window activity by clubs also provides a window into what management sees as the club’s weaknesses and strengths.

A couple of weeks ago, SBTN provided some benchmarking of clubs’ offensive and defensive performance during the first 20 weeks of the season. Below, I spend some time reviewing the transfers clubs in fact made to see if and what kind of insight they provide into clubs’ thinking and strategies. To start, total transfer expenditure by Premier League clubs had reached £59m as of February 1st. This made it a window of relative austerity compared to last January’s bumper sales record £225m. With the numbers flying around considerably less heady than 2011, significant outlays by Chelsea (£20.5m), QPR (£10.5m) and Newcastle (£10m) represented well over half of all the money spent during January. Gary Cahill and Papiss Demba Cissé represent the only permanent first-team signings made by clubs in the current top eight, with loan deals the preferred choice of many teams throughout the league.

In the bottom half of the table, clubs employed a variety of transfer approaches. Both West Brom and Wigan apparently decided that Birmingham City was the one-stop shop for survival saviours, plundering the promotion hopefuls for Liam Ridgewell and Jean Beausejour, respectively. But most clubs were more reserved. Stoke chose not to make a single signing; Swansea and Wolves both opted for loan deals and small transfers under £250,000; temporary loanee Robbie Keane was Aston Villa’s sole addition; and Fulham’s main signing, striker Pavel Pogrebnyak, was helped along by Bobby Zamora’s last minute move 3 miles north to QPR. Blackburn, meanwhile, seemed to be hoping that a successful transfer window is just as much about whom you keep as whom you buy, and if they can somehow lift themselves out of the relegation zone come May then holding onto an unhappy Chris Samba may prove a masterstroke.

Of those clubs deciding that significant reinforcements were necessary, Everton and QPR featured heavily in the Deadline Day transfer activity; together with Bolton (£6.5m), the Toffees (£6.5m) and Rangers (£10.5m) spent the most amongst clubs outside the top six.*

These are the basic facts. But what do match data tell us about each side’s performance levels this season and how the performance of the players they brought in may or may not help them improve in the remainder of the 2011/12 season? To get a handle on these, I take a look at each of the three club’s and player’s performance stats to diagnose what, specifically, ails the clubs and how the players’ performance profiles may rectify gaps in performance. As you will see below, the numbers and transfers tell very different stories about each of the three clubs.**

Toffees Target Goals

Everton bought striker Nikica Jelavic from Glasgow Rangers and attacking midfielder Darron Gibson from Manchester United, whilst loaning wingers Landon Donovan and Steven Pienaar. With fans perennially protesting at the club’s lack of expenditure, Everton’s outlay is notable, despite the signing of striker Nikica Jelavic hinging on the income from Diniyar Bilyaletdinov’s return to Russia. So why did Everton decide to loosen the purse strings at this point in this season, and will it give them a new edge?

All four players are attack-minded reinforcements, and the reasons behind this are obvious. At the time of writing (about a week after the closing of the transfer window), Everton lie tenth in the Premier League table (11th on goals scored) – below expectations for a club who have finished in the top eight in each of the last five seasons. Defensively, the Toffees have been the 6th most secure in the league, conceding only 27 goals to date. As these numbers and other analyses show, their current position in the table reflects their inability to impose themselves sufficiently at the other end of the pitch, scoring just 24 goals in 24 Premier League matches – the third lowest in the league. Clearly, Jelavic’s return of two goals every three games in the Scottish Premier League this season clearly proved too tempting to pass up.

Beyond Everton’s modest goals total, it is worth noting that only about half of them (54%) have been from open-play, with seven coming from set-pieces and four from penalties. This despite the fact that 74% of their shots have come from central areas, and three-quarters of their attacks have come from the flanks – equally from both sides despite Leighton Baines’ prominence. This correlates with their production of the second most crosses per game in the league (26). Clearly, Everton have not produced as many open play goals as they should have. Donovan has fit in well to this style of play since his two-month loan began at the turn of the year. He has produced more than five crosses a game and created 14 scoring chances in his six league games so far. With the American’s loan soon to end, Pienaar has presumably been brought in to play a similar wide role, as well as looking to improve upon his previous scoring record at Everton (4 goals in 30 matches in 09/10).

Taken together, Everton’s lack of goals is thus not due to a dearth in shots (14 per game; 8th most in the league). However, quality seems to be lacking, with only 29% of Everton’s shots having found the target and just 7% resulting in a goal. For Rangers, Jelavic put up stellar numbers; he worked the keeper with 46% of his shots, and converted 1 in 4 of his shots into goals. The caveat, of course, is that he played for the best side in a much weaker league. But any returns anywhere near his Scottish numbers will surely help to boost the Toffee’s scoring record.

Goal scoring contributions from midfield would also be welcomed given the hole left by the decline of Tim Cahill. Here, the onus is on Darron Gibson to produce more strikes of the kind that recently beat league leaders Manchester City. With Phil Jagielka soon to return from a six-week lay-off, Everton’s strong defensive form should continue to improve as it did throughout the first 20 weeks of the season – as discussed previously on this blog. With new attacking additions in place, and alongside attacking full-backs Baines and Hibbert, Steven Pienaar will look to help provide chances for top man Jelavic, especially once Landon Donovan returns to MLS. Frequent shooting is likely to remain a part of Everton’s game and Darron Gibson will hope to improve their long-range success rate. If Nikica Jelavic can successfully translate his form in Scotland to the Premier League then the swap-shop deal following the exit of commentator’s-nightmare Bilyaletdinov could well prove the biggest boost to the Evertonian cause.

Surely, the winter transfer window’s surprise were Everton who altered their recent transfer approach in order to bolster their attack. At the moment, Sunderland in eighth and Norwich in ninth both have a 40% greater goal-per-game ratio. Moyes and the Toffees’ fans will be hoping their goals tally will receive a boost as a result, and if there is no let up in their defensive rigidity a climb back up into European contention come May could well be in the cards.

Balancing the Books Might Tip Wanderers Over the Edge

Despite their precarious position in the relegation zone and performance issues at both ends of the pitch, Bolton followed a book-balancing approach to the winter transfer market. Given the club’s books, this may not be a surprise, but the question is whether this strategy will pay off on the pitch. Of the £7m they received for central defender Gary Cahill, £2.5m went back into buying another central defender, Tim Ream, from American side New York Red Bulls. But Ream is not exactly a one-to-one replacement for Cahil. In the short term at least, the void left by Cahill is more likely to be filled by David Wheater teaming up with Zat Knight. Although they have made the most interceptions per game (19.4) and the fourth highest number of tackles per game (20.3), Bolton have conceded the second-most shots per game (17.5) this season and have the highest percentage of shots conceded within the penalty area (63%). For a team with that kind of defensive record, the loss of an England international who has won the most offsides in the league and makes more than 9 clearances per match is likely to hurt Bolton’s survival chances significantly.

Despite ranking well in the goal scoring stakes for relegation strugglers, 13th with 28 goals in 24 games, the Wanderers reinvested the majority of their transfer income (£4m) in England U21 striker Marvin Sordell from Watford. With a Championship record of 8 goals in 25 starts Sordell (20) is clearly an investment for the future, but Owen Coyle may also hope he can support and provide some relief for Bolton’s predominant attacking threat, Ivan Klasnic, this season – he is both top goal scorer (7) and top assister (4).

Given Bolton’s defensive struggles so far this year, it is not a great leap to suggest that selling their best defender will not help their survival fight, even if USA international Tim Ream makes a significant impression during his first few months in the Premier League. Although the data available on both Ream and Sordell are insufficient for a full picture, it is unlikely that either of Wanderers’ January investments will have enough impact to improve the side beyond where it was on January 1st. So Bolton look weaker on defense – their primary Achilles heel – and stronger on offense – where they had been doing reasonably well, as a result of their recent transfer activity. If they do survive, the relegation battle won’t have been won by the moves they made in the winter transfer window.

QPR Overhaul to Steady The Survival Ship

Queens Park Rangers have taken a different approach still, following the appointment of Mark Hughes as manager. Unlike Everton who sought offensive reinforcements and Bolton who sought to balance the books, Rangers looked for help on both ends of the pitch. Spending over £10m, the Premier League new-boys have put down a marker of their intention to remain a top-flight outfit. As recently discussed on this blog, Rangers have consistently underperformed on defence, whilst their attacking form has also been disappointing and deteriorated between matches 10-20. As a result, QPR brought in no less than six players in various positions during January, three of whom were permanent signings. This is a substantial overhaul of the squad half-way through the season.

The data show that the Hoops have done well on shot creation, accumulating the 10th most in the league (323). However, this has not resulted in an equal goal return as they lie 16th in the goal scoring charts with 25 in their first 24 matches. Contributing heavily to their poor chance conversion rate of 8% could be the fact that 56% of all their shots have been from outside the penalty area – the highest in the league. Clearly, QPR have taken more of a direct approach to offense, making the third fewest short passes per game (299) and playing one in five passes as a long ball.

If bringing in Bobby Zamora and Djibril Cissé is a direct attempt to remedy QPR’s lack of finishing quality, the available statistics suggest that there is room for argument whether these were the wisest moves.*** These arguments should revolve around quantity and style of play. On the quantity side, Cissé has scored one goal with 48 shots in 18 appearances (13 starts) for Lazio this season. Even factoring in the low scoring nature of Serie A, this is still a very low level of chance conversion. For his previous Premier League sides, Cissé averaged less than a goal every three appearances at both Sunderland and Liverpool. For Fulham, Zamora has scored 5 goals this season having taken only 31 shots in 15 appearances (14 starts). This chance conversion rate of 16% could be construed as promising, considering QPR’s challenge of finishing chances off. However, Fulham have actually created almost two shots more per game than QPR this season (15.3 v 13.5), suggesting that Zamora’s low shot rate is unlikely to improve at Loftus Road unless Rangers also find a way to create more chances and more chances inside the box.

In terms of style of play, both Cissé and Zamora have performed well on assists, with 6 and 5 respectively, and have reasonable pass success rates, 71% and 75%. These metrics indicate both players have performed more of a second-striker role with their old clubs. At QPR, Heidar Helguson has been the main striking threat this year, scoring on 8 with a chance conversion rate of 20%, whilst also winning four aerial duels per match. His low pass success (58%) and assist number (2), suggests that he is definitely better suited to being the main striker. Helguson’s goal rates have dropped recently, as Rangers’ have too, and the 34 year-old may struggle to sustain his early form throughout the rest of a long year.

This could prove costly for Mark Hughes. Cissé and Zamora are undoubtedly high profile signings who have already notched a goal each for QPR. But performance data indicate that both are better suited to a supporting role alongside top-man Helgusson rather than providing the answers to Rangers’ finishing problems. At a minimum, it suggests significant tactical challenges for Hughes and his staff.

Further back, the signing of defensive midfielder Samba Diakite on loan from Nancy seems to be a direct replacement for Alejandro Faurlin following his season-ending injury. As QPR’s top tackler and top interceptor, as well the top tackler in the league (4.5 per game!), Faurlin will be a difficult act to follow, especially in front of one of the most porous defences in the league. With Diakite having conceded more fouls (41) than tackles (33) in Ligue 1 this season, Hughes may also need Shaun Derry to plug the Faurlin-shaped hole in QPR’s midfield.

In defence, not only are QPR fifth in terms of goal concession, but they rank fourth for shots conceded (16.2 p.g.) and only 18th for interceptions (13.8 p.g.). Coupled with Rangers ranking fifth for tackles per game (20.3) and centre-backs Danny Gabbidon and Anton Ferdinand ranking second and third respectively for clearances per game across the whole league, the data certainly suggest that QPR’s defending is often last ditch and ineffective. In response, Nedum Onuoha has been drafted straight into the back four, at a cost of £2.5m. If he can flourish with regular football as he did on loan for Sunderland last season, he may prove an astute buy to help patch them up at the back. Taye Taiwo has also been brought in at left-back on loan from AC Milan. Having only played 4 Serie A games this season, the data are not sufficient to render judgment about his performance this year. But Taiwo’s impressive form at Marseille in previous years indicates the Nigerian could significantly improve the Hoops, both in defence and in attack (4 goals and 3 assists in 10/11). Both Onuoha and Taiwo plug important and obvious holes for the club.

Owner Tony Fernandes showed his support for Mark Hughes with significant monetary backing in the winter transfer window, with the six signings reflecting QPR’s need for improvement to avoid relegation fears. A lack of finishing prompted the arrivals of Zamora, Cissé, and Macheda, but absent significant changes in form or style, these men face an uphill battle to improve Rangers’ poor chance conversion rates. Defensive reinforcements Onuoha and Taiwo were much needed, given QPR’s woeful defensive record thus far. Perhaps the task of standing in for the injured Faurlin in defensive midfield will be most critical and could prove too much for Derry or Diakite, at the risk of nullifying the positive strides made at the back. QPR might have to rely on clubs beneath them failing to improve rather than on their new signings driving them upwards if they are to repeat the Premier League adventure next season.

Prosperity Through Austerity?

The January transfer window again proved most popular with those sides facing the bottom of the league. Bolton’s long-term planning for Gary Cahill’s departure amounted to the signing of American international centre-back Tim Ream and young striker Marvin Sordell. And while both signings may prove valuable in the future, it is unlikely that either will prove decisive during the relegation battle they are currently embroiled in. QPR were very active in the market, seeing room for improvement all over the park and bringing in six new faces. Whilst the defensive additions could well help to shore up their leaky back-line, their choices of striking options are more surprising, given the distinctive playing styles of Zamora and Cissé and the distinct quality of finishing that Rangers dearly need.

Although their Premier League status is not at stake, Everton felt compelled to temper their recent austerity measures and bring in a number of attacking options – and at great prices. Donovan’s impact has been positive, but he is shortly to depart. In his stead, Steven Pienaar should maintain the service to the forwards, whilst the hope of Toffees fans must be to see the arrival of Nikica Jelavic as the best contribution Diniyar Bilyaletdinov could made to their cause. The impetus of several new attacking players, on the back of a string of good recent results, could well be what Everton need to clamber back up into the top 8 and may prove the most astute dealing done in January 2012.

* However, Rangers’ net spend under new manager Mark Hughes was around £9.5m, whilst the Toffees were left about £1m down and Bolton came out of January with a £500,000 profit.
** Premier League / Serie A/ Ligue 1 data:; Scottish Premier League / MLS data:
*** Loan-singing Federico Macheda seems likely to be mainly a squad player following the arrivals of Zamora and Cissé.
Transfer Values:

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