STATS BLOG: Is the league really getting better?

by & filed under News Review.

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Liverpool are well and truly choking on their Premiership title dreams, yesterday dropping points to an Everton team in dire straits on and off the pitch. It’s a shame for Jurgen Klopp; a man who is on everyone’s ‘I’d like to be best pals’ wishlist, because I think most feel it’d be great for football if he won something huge.

Liverpool has spent well, the football vision is exciting, but it’s starting to look like this season might be a little beyond them. Pep G’s winning machine – supported by my best pal – looks like it’s just finding its winning gear, whilst Klopp’s is sputtering like an office shredder you’ve accidentally dropped a Darren Anderton autobiography into.

It’s interesting to read the excuses coming out the of the club, Klopp classically lambasting the wind definitely up there with anything Wenger cited in his latter years. I also think it’s amusing reading around the Liverpool fans, excuses ranging from HE’S A FRAUD, which I have to say is outright one of the most pathetic critiques spouted online. It should be a hate crime to call CR7 a fraud, yet all the kids say it everytime he doesn’t score a hattrick. RONALDO A FRAUD DO YOU UNDERSTAND THE WORD. PEP G A FRAUD ARE YOU JOKING?! GET IN THE BIN YOU VIRGIN.

Back to the post… the other twist on the Klopp choke I read was, ‘well, he could finish as a record-breaking second placed team.’

Intriguing, because my initial reaction to hearing this was: PFFFFFTTTTT!

That did get me thinking because there’s a lot of referencing yesteryears points totals when trying to ascertain current progress.

Would anyone really be happy with a record-breaking second place? Is that like the Buffalo Bills making 4 Super Bowls? Can points totals year-on-year be used to ascertain success?

I have to say, I wasn’t sure about this.

Does 90 points carry the same value in 2019 as it did in 2015?

Are the smaller teams getting better, thus making high points totals even more spectacular?

Does comparing two different league seasons, where so many variables change, really act as a good barometer for progress or success?

Can you really be classed as a choking meltface if you break 90 points?

I spent some time thinking about these important questions. I dug around the hard numbers instead of dropping a factually loose hot take, which would usually be my preferred weapon of choice. I was surprised by what I found.

The difference between 6th and 7th felt like a good place to begin my investigation to ascertain if the league really was getting better.

Points gap between 6th/7th

2012 8
2013 2
2014 5
2015 2
2016 1
2017 8
2018 9
2019 13

2012 to 2017, the average difference was 5 points. This season, despite all the praise Wolves and Watford are receiving, the difference between Chelsea and Wolves/Watford is a whopping 13 points. If anything, it would appear from this data point that the league is getting less competitive below the top 6.

In 2012, Newcastle were in the top 6. Everton in 2013 and 2014. 2016, Leicester won the thing and Southampton were 6th (unreal).

The last two seasons have seen a return to normality. The big clubs are occupying the big spots. This season looks set to follow the same trend. The league doesn’t seem to be getting better across the spectrum, it’s getting better at the top as the mightiest concentrate power by doubling down on better players and elite coaches.

So from a Liverpool perspective, can you really say that a record-breaking 2nd place is an achievement? Maybe. In fact, probably. NO, I’d say you certainly can.

League Year 1st/2nd Gap 1st pts Total
2012 0 89
2013 11 89
2014 2 86
2015 8 87
2016 10 81
2017 7 93
2018 19 100
2019 1 71

The points total for winning the league has really ramped up over the past two seasons. City dropped 100 points last year with a 19 point gap between 1st and 2nd, the average gap the preceding 6 seasons was only 6.3 points. If both City and Liverpool take 22 points from their last 9 games, they’ll finish on 93 and 92 points. Liverpool would have closed the gap, no doubt, and really, after the utter dominance of last season’s City, that’s a good thing for the league.

Can you call a team that breaks 90 points bottlers? Absolutely. It’s hilarious to do so because journalists who have lost touch with the realities of fandom write op-eds about how terrible this sort of analysis is… bit like me with the word FRAUD. But, the reality is, it’s hard to call anyone reaching 90+ points a bottler. That’s league winning numbers. It’s incredible consistency, skill, hard work, fitness and focus. It’s paper thin margins at this level, a point difference at the end of a season is not a coin toss between world class and BOTTLE JOB. It’s luck of the draw.

Additionally, a points progression for Arsenal would be a notable achievement because we were 9 points off 7th, and whopping 12 points off of 4th place last season. I think it’s looking like it’ll be very tough for us to make #Top4, but if we’re within spitting distance, Emery will be able to point to Ozil and Ramsey struggles and he’ll probably be able to pull together a sizzle reel of Mustafi playing his Nintendo Switch at corners that’d likely make a good case for investment delivering a higher position.

Just some extra numbers, because why the hell not. The average points total for the wooden spoon has been 25 points over the past 7 seasons, the outlier being Villa finishing with 17 points the year we downed them in the FA Cup.

Despite common consensus, the league isn’t really getting better, I think it’s just a perspective thing. Watford and Wolves are the new Stoke, Everton and Southampton. When they drop a result against a mega team, you feel like you’ve never seen it before, even though you have, it’s just you’re used to a different colour kit for your upsets.

I’m basically saying you’re stupid and I am clever because I have a really good spreadsheet.

Also worth remembering that if Liverpool drop 90+ points, they’ll have jumped over 15 points in a single season. If Monchi comes in and works the transfer market really well, there’s really no reason for us not to expect similar levels of progress.

The competitiveness of the Premier League is also exciting when you look across Europe and what Champions League money has allowed big clubs to do. This from Rory Smith.

In the Belarusian Premier League, BATE Borisov has won 12 titles in a row. In Switzerland, Basel has swept the last eight. In Bulgaria and Scotland, Ludogorets Razgrad and Celtic have been untouchable for six. In Croatia, Rijeka won the championship last year. But the previous 11 had all gone to Dinamo Zagreb.

These are no longer title races. They are now simply processions, their result almost preordained, entire seasons stripped of drama and intrigue.

Over the last five years, Olympiacos has received more than $125 million from its Champions League appearances. Basel has brought in $68 million. BATE, thanks to three appearances in the group stage, has earned $50 million, and Dinamo Zagreb $55 million.

So even as we chant BOTTLE JOB MUGS at our southern scouser friends at work today, just be thankful there’s a race this season, and maybe excite yourself at the thought that they were in a poorer position squad wise than us when Klopp took over.

Right, that’s me done. See your sexy faces in the comments. x

266 Responses to “STATS BLOG: Is the league really getting better?”

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  1. Up 4 grabs now

    The klopp love in though, always thought him a little condescending and what’s with the Wenger excuses, the wind, lol.
    Also would question the whole he inherited a worse squad than what emery did.

  2. Pierre

    Grabs
    As anyone who has an understanding of the game would know ,penalties and red cards are all game changing decisions but now they will be taken out of the referees control by VAR.

  3. Dissenter

    Pierre,
    There are more plausible explanations other than a conspiracy ring of biased officials plotting against Arsenal;
    -Our central defensive pairing of Koschielny and Mustafi have been penalty magnets because of the clumsiness.
    -We don’t have pace in our central defenders,
    -Our fullbacks were shit and didn’t know how to cut off crosses
    -We had no proper defensive midfielder to shield our defense
    -Mesut Ozil was good offensively but playing him made defensive shape very difficult.

  4. Luteo Monzorla

    That Aubameyang penalty miss has given me bad flashbacks all weekend, honestly a miss we may be talking about for decades depending on how the season pans out. I might, at least. Just random moments of dropping my head and cursing. Fucking hell. I got a new Glock on Friday and even waited until yesterday to break it in, I was so depressed. Yesterday carded a 94 over eighteen holes, worst score I’ve had in months. Still can’t believe that miss.

  5. Luteo Geunreira

    That Aubameyang penalty miss has given me bad flashbacks all weekend, honestly a miss we may be talking about for decades depending on how the season pans out. I might, at least. Just random moments of dropping my head and cursing. Fucking hell. I got a new Glock on Friday and even waited until yesterday to break it in, I was so depressed. Yesterday carded a 94 over eighteen holes, worst score I’ve had in months. Still can’t believe that miss.

  6. Luteo Guenreira

    That Aubameyang penalty miss has given me bad flashbacks all weekend, honestly a miss we may be talking about for decades depending on how the season pans out. I might, at least. Just random moments of dropping my head and cursing. Fucking hell. I got a new Glock on Friday and even waited until yesterday to break it in, I was so depressed. Yesterday carded a 94 over eighteen holes, worst score I’ve had in months. Still can’t believe that miss.

  7. Dissenter

    I mean we’ve had a gross neglect of our defensive half of the team for the past half decade. We haven’t had proper defensive coaching for a long time.
    Yet all Pierre can ascribe the disparity in penalties to his a vast conspiracy against Arsenal.
    Pierre wasn’t even critical until Wenger left. It’s no wonder Wenger lasted so long. Kroenke was a doofus for keeping him but there were fans like idolizing him even when he was running the club down.

  8. Pierre

    Dissenter
    I could go back ten / fifteen years and the penalties conceded differential will be even wider.
    It’s more than coincidental.

  9. Luteo Guenreira

    Shit golf indeed. Never gotten a lesson in my life. I play golf to smoke weed and yell at stuffy old men like you Pierre.

  10. jwl

    MidwestGun – speaking of crazy bastards, I remember someone named Hunter who would show up at midnight UK time and just write loony comments all night and those of us in North America would have to read some guy clearly off his meds.

  11. qna

    Lol. Lueto. Keep that Glock locked up mate. Don’t want to be walking around with that thing thinking about Arsenal. Should be a criteria for ownership. No Arsenal gun owners until Stan sells up :).

  12. Dissenter

    I mentioned this yesterday.
    There’s something rather thick about Gareth Bale, maybe it’s the spursy side of him.
    How can you not be able to speak a language you’ve been immersed in for the past 5 years.
    He’s declined so much as a player and when you hear the things his Madrid team mates say you just have to wonder. I don’t think there’s a major English club that will take a chance on him. Even United are going down the path of youthful players now.

  13. Marc

    Dissenter

    You should feel sorry for Bale I mean it’s not as if he could afford a private tutor to teach him Spanish. As for no big team going in for him – I’d still wouldn’t be surprised to see ManU go for him, the Spud’s would love to take him back but I don’t think they have anywhere near the money unless they sell a couple of big players.

  14. Luteo Guenreira

    Away fans are normally amazing but Arsenal certainly haven’t given them much to cheer about the last couple years.

    Away fans are our most devoted supporters, bless them.

  15. Marc

    Luteo

    Are you just trying to confuse him, he hasn’t learnt Spanish in 5 years and now you’re going to drop him into Turin?

  16. Upstate Gooner

    Guns of Hackney March 4, 2019 14:30:18
    “How did Ben Afleck ever become an actor?”

    Ha. How did that become a topic of conversation? Him and Paul Walker (sorry, Paul) are definitely top 2 worst actors of all time. That said, Affleck is not a bad director. I thought Argo was pretty darn good. So was The Town. Can only imagine how much better they would’ve been with a different male lead.

  17. Luteo Guenreira

    Marc

    Cardiff then? I dunno mate. At least he’ll have Aaron to speak English with.

    And when they throw bananas at Bale in Italy it won’t be a race thing.

  18. Upstate Gooner

    Marc
    “Are you just trying to confuse him, he hasn’t learnt Spanish in 5 years and now you’re going to drop him into Turin?”

    Made me laugh out loud.

  19. Upstate Gooner

    I don’t think Bale is going anywhere. He’s on pretty hefty wages and there’s only a handful of clubs that could afford him. He’s also turning 30 in the summer. Perhaps China? But not a lot of players want to go there. So I’m afraid RM fans will have to suck it up, and get used to seeing him in their uniform for the next 3 years or so (I believe his contract is until 2022).

  20. Pedro

    Pierre,

    You’re sounding a bit untold there.

    The recurring theme is we’re not versed in the dark arts.

  21. Upstate Gooner

    All these stats don’t mean much. Here’s a couple of numbers for you: The year Leicester won the title, we finished 2nd with 72 points (10 or so points behind them). Next season we finished with 75 points and finished … 5th. That shows me that all the top 6 teams have gotten better. The rest of the league is pretty … MEH. Having said that we still get more upsets in EPL than they get in La Liga, Bundesliga, Ligue 1, etc. When was the last time Barca, Bayern, PSG, or Juve lost to minnows? As for finishing 2nd with 90+ points – who’s gonna remember how many points you got? Only Pool supporters who’ll probably be proud of their “record” point total while not winning the title. There’s only one winner as far as I’m concerned.

  22. Marc

    “The recurring theme is we’re not versed in the dark arts.”

    Very true – it’s not what you do it’s what you get away with!

  23. Upstate Gooner

    Marc
    “Thing is Casey Affleck has been in a couple of good films. Didn’t Ben Affleck also co write Good Will Hunting?”

    Yes, Ben Affleck and Matt Damon wrote the screenplay for Good Will Hunting. He’s still a pretty shitty actor. Casey, his brother, is a better actor IMHO but I just can’t stand his annoying voice. Gone Baby Gone (from one of my fav book series by Dennis Lehane) would’ve been so much better without him in it.

  24. Marc

    Upstate

    I enjoyed Gone Baby Gone – thought it was a decent film and just a bit different. I also enjoyed The Assassination of Jessie James by the Coward Robert Ford – but that’s one you’ve got to be in the right mood for.

  25. Upstate Gooner

    90210 – my guilty pleasure back in the early 90’s. Along with Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, and Saved by the Bell. RIP, Luke.

  26. Marc

    Upstate

    Yeah Brad Pitt plays Jessie James but it’s nowhere near what you’d call a traditional western. It’s a bloody long film and very brooding but it’s worth a go.

    I appreciate not liking a genre but Unforgiven is worth a couple of hours of your time. Really strong cast – Eastwood, Morgan Freeman and Gene Hackman.

  27. Valentin

    Ben Affleck was very good in the Accountant.
    When he plays against type, he is much better. When he tries to play the everyday man he just sound too phony.

  28. englandsbest

    Few will disagree that, in terms of quality and depth, Arsenal is the weakest squad in top 6 clubs. That was the case at the start of the season, and with no meaningful signings in Jan, that is still the case.

    So it would be fair to say that finishing in 6th place is expected, 5th is better, and, for most, 4th is better than good. But it’s still nowhere near as good as winning something. I don’t rate the Carabao Cup (or whatever it’s called nowadays) but I’d much rather win that than come 4th in the league.

    Those who disagree have been fooled by the bottom-policy of the Club. They should ask themselves what they are likely to remember when they are old and grey and full of care, the ten years of top 4 or the three FA Cups won.

    They have been brainwashed into believing that the prospect of CL cash will mean a spending spree this summer. Utter bullshit. No matter what, little, if any, net money will be spent in the summer. Emery will have to sell to buy.

    The prospect of drubbings at the hands of top-rank European sides (that’s if Arsenal get into last 16) is not something that I look forward to.

  29. Marko

    Affleck is a brilliant director it must be said. Gone Baby Gone and the Town were brilliant. Shit Batman though. The assassination of Jesse James is brilliant.

  30. Marc

    englandsbest

    You have no idea what you are talking about. You were talking about Everton challenging the other day.

    I’d really not preach to anyone about Arsenal – did you actually make it to any of those 3 FA Cup finals?

  31. Marko

    Sanchez will face no action for kicking out at Koscielny. Because the ref saw it. Saw it did nothing about it and now they can’t do anything retrospectively. What a dumb rule. Basically they can’t overrule bad refereeing decisions

  32. Valentin

    @Dissenter,

    I don’t know if it is being thick or very insular.
    When Gareth Bale went to Real Madrid, he took his family with him (not just wife but parents included) and transposed a Welsh environment over there.

    I has a former colleague like that. Got transferred to Paris. Saw him in Paris ten years later, still did not speak a single word of French. Has Sky at Home not French TV. Knew all the Irish or English pubs, and the golf course around Paris. Had a monthly shipment of British food delivered to his flat. He was relying on his kids for anything French related.
    Truly shocking. The guy was a high functioning idiot.

  33. Valentin

    @Englanbest,

    I would argue that Arsenal has the fourth best squad.
    Behind ManCity, Liverpool and ManUtd.
    What Spurs has on us is a few years of good coaching. Take Kane, Ericksen, Alli out of that squad and they are average.
    Chelsea have two outstanding players in Hazard and Kante, one very good plus still unfit in Higuain but The rest are just support cast. What they have is mental fortitude and better coaching for the last few years.

  34. Marc

    Marko

    That’s actually not true, it’s a lie / myth perpetuated by the FA to save them from having to point out just how incompetent the ref’s under their structure actually are. There have certainly been cases on the continent where a ref has taken action during a match and then the local FA have upgraded the decision having reviewed it.

  35. Dissenter

    Valentin
    Yes, but can you friend afford a 24-7 French tutor to shadow him and make him speak French
    Also you friend could have learned French from his kids.
    A curious parent will learn tonnes from their children.

  36. englandsbest

    By now I have no doubt that Emery has identified several positions where he needs replacement and/or reinforcements. If he were to be given a free rein, his list would probably reach double figures.

    For two reasons he will have to make do with far less. First, he will be given very little money to spend and, second, very few of the squad will fetch much on the transfer market.

    Ozil must head his would-be list of departures, if only to free up his £17m pa wages. My guess is that a high offer for any (bar a couple) of his current would get his nod. Bye, bye, Ozil, Bellerin, Mustafi, Xhaka, Mikhi, Aubameyang (and Ramsay, of course).

  37. Upstate Gooner

    Marc
    “I appreciate not liking a genre but Unforgiven is worth a couple of hours of your time. Really strong cast – Eastwood, Morgan Freeman and Gene Hackman.”

    I did see it. It’s one of the better ones for sure, I agree. I’m a movie junkie and will watch pretty much anything. Westerns just never did it for me. My favorite two are probably “McKenna’s Gold” (old one with Gregory Peck and Omar Sherif), and “True Grit” (with Jeff Bridges).

  38. Pierre

    On the p!us side we have only conceded 2 goals in 4 games.

    4-2-3-1 with the full backs not so advanced is the way to get results ..I know I have been harping on about it for 3 months or more but finally , at long last we are
    nearly playing the system that suits the players best.

    This system gives us the best of both worlds , solidity at the back plus it allows the offensive 4 to be more creative without the worry of us being open to the counter if they lose the ball.

    2 solid midfielders to protect the back 4 and you have a team who can compete against anyone.
    with this system we can play open expansive football , as against Bournemouth , or the pragmatic football we played against Tottenham and be equally successful.

  39. Upstate Gooner

    Pierre
    “2 solid midfielders to protect the back 4 and you have a team who can compete against anyone.”

    Normally I would agree with you, Pierre, but I think it’s more important to have one guy in midfield with pace and grit, and another one with the ability to dribble past a couple of defenders to move the ball forward. Getting Torreira and Guendouzi was good business in the summer but none of them can string two passes together and are not good dribblers. Personally I think the main guy we needed to replace was Santi Cazorla. He was that link between our back 4 and front 3 (mainly Ozil). Because of that more times than not Ozil has to drop deep to pick up the ball which consequently hurts his ability to create in the final third.

  40. Zimmie2652

    “So we’ve had Keith Flint and Luke Perry die today. There’s got to be some old actor out there who’s bricking it!”

    The Ramsey curse is alive and well.

  41. azed

    ” I think it’s more important to have one guy in midfield with pace and grit, and another one with the ability to dribble past a couple of defenders to move the ball forward”

    I would say we definitely need an upgrade on Iwobi. Having a winger in the mold of Sane improves our attack tremendously and would keep teams honest.

  42. azed

    “4-2-3-1 with the full backs not so advanced is the way to get results ..I know I have been harping on about it for 3 months or more but finally , at long last we are
    nearly playing the system that suits the players best.”

    Bellerin and Kolasinac are better attacking than defending.

    Mustafi is not a right back and Monreal was injured for the first half of the season.

  43. Pierre

    Upstate
    I’m not against having someone with the quality of Cazorla in midfield, he did provide the link and we haven’t replaced him.

    Torreira, though not as technically gifted as Cazorla, could play a similar role as I think there is a lot more to come from him..
    The manager needs to let him settle back into the role of protecting the back 4 instead of demanding too much of him.
    He looked a far better player earlier in the season .

  44. Upstate Gooner

    So it looks like Alexis is out for 6-8 weeks and won’t be facing us on Sunday. I have to say that as much as I hate to see any player hurt, I’m a bit relieved. That’s like facing ManU/RvP back in the day. Still expecting a tough game but I really do fancy our chances.

  45. Pierre

    Azed
    “Bellerin and Kolasinac are better attacking than defending.”

    If their position is full back , then they should play as full back and support the attack if needed.
    This season it has always looked like our full backs are being asked to play too advanced , hence our dreadful defensive record this season through leaving space down the channels.

    If it means playing .Monreal and Mustafi as full backs to make us more solid then that’s fine .
    We have enough attacking talent to create chances and as I said earlier , the offensive players can play with more freedom in the knowledge that the protection is behind them.

  46. azed

    “If their position is full back , then they should play as full back and support the attack if needed.”

    Kolasinac’s position is full back in theory but you and I know that Kolasinac has no clue about defending or even basic positioning.

    I’d like to think Emery recognizes this and telling Kolasinac to stay put means we miss out on his offensive side while gaining nothing from him defensively.

  47. MidwestGun

    Ooops was gonna give you an assist Pedro… I read it though.. the problem is Barca has Messi to build on… face of the organization…. We haven’t had that type of thing since Thierry Henry… and we didn’t take advantage of it enough.

  48. MidwestGun

    It reminds me though of that .. Passing machine that Dortmund built to train their players. Some Clubs take things next level. I saw a video of Pulisic training on that thing.. was unreal.

  49. MidwestGun

    That is the type of thing you need an owner to take the lead on .. For example… Stan is building the same type of complex for the Rams.. I guess it will be like the 3rd wonder of the modern world once completed.. would he do the same thing for Arsenal? I’m not sure about that..

  50. Words on a Blog

    Pedro – great read.

    What I found really interesting was the fact that Barça employs data analysts and has access to extensive data analysts, but that everybody involved, from the manager on down (including the analysts) is still pretty sceptical about the value of the data in understanding what makes a good player/team or tactics. In the end, what they really wanted, more than pace, power, acceleration, endurance etc.. was intangible: an “intelligent” player.

    Someone like Messi, Xavi or Busquets!

    It’s clear that their is a lot of brainpower and science involved, but that football is still at the beginning of the process of applying it.

  51. Pedro

    Mid, it’s the type of thing Raul should take a lead on. Stan isn’t going to be interested in the future of load mapping.

  52. grooveydaddy

    Does anybody feel like copying and pasting that article?

    I can’t seem to get past the subscription thing no matter what I try…

  53. MidwestGun

    G daddy-
    It’s a pretty massive article.. I found it by google search and could read it through that link.. but when you copy paste it.. it gives you the subscription thing.

  54. Words on a Blog

    Another interesting little factoid from the article was that the Barça people believe that Liverpool have the leading data analytics people in football.

    It would be really interesting to understand how much of the improvement in Liverpool’s play over the last3-4 years has been driven by the analytics supporting Klopp’s high intensity “heavy metal” style of play

  55. Pedro

    Words, it’s not skepticism, it’s humans protecting their role.

    Tech should always be a support for creativity.

  56. salpardisenyc

    MEGA POST for Groovey

    A little man in a baseball cap, sitting high in his luxury crossover SUV, drives into the players’ parking lot at FC Barcelona’s closed training ground. Lionel Messi, the world’s best footballer, is reporting for work.

    We’re used to seeing footballers in stadiums but, in fact, the place where they spend most of their working lives, their equivalent of the office, is the training ground. Barcelona’s Ciutat Esportiva Joan Gamper, named after the club’s founder, sits at the western edge of town.

    FC Barcelona vie with their eternal rivals Real Madrid for the unofficial title of the biggest football club on earth. “Barça”, as they are known, have won the European Champions League five times, four of them since 2006.

    Currently headed for a probable 26th Spanish title, they visit Real Madrid this weekend for the latest instalment of El Clásico, the most-watched club game in global football. In sport, Barcelona’s 190 million followers on social media are second only to Madrid.

    The club’s training complex, the Ciutat Esportiva Joan Gamper © Ciro Frank Schiappa
    Messi and his teammates stand atop a largely unseen support team of data and video analysts, doctors, nutritionists and more. Barça also employ specialists on stadiums and social outreach. In 2017, the club quietly launched the “Barcelona Innovation Hub”, which is charged with helping to invent the future of football. The hub’s staff think about everything in the game from beetroot juice to virtual reality.

    Club president Josep Maria Bartomeu told me he considers the hub to be Barça’s “most important” project. “The sportsmen of the future will perform much better than the ones now,” he says.

    Recently, Barça let me peek behind the curtain. On sun-drenched February days that made you feel it was unfair that anyone got to have stimulating work in Barcelona, I spoke to head coach Ernesto Valverde and to club directors, and spent hours talking to the hub’s specialists (who the club would not let me quote by name).

    We met in the bowels of the Camp Nou stadium, in the café of the adjoining ice rink and at the club’s medical centre. The officials didn’t tell me everything, but they told me a lot. They know that football cannot be “solved” with algorithms, and that no robot will ever match Messi’s genius; all they aspire to is to add something.

    Big football clubs, never particularly forward-thinking, are getting smarter. Since TV money began flooding into the game from the early 1990s, the rewards for being more professional have kept rising. Last October, Barcelona reported record annual revenues of €914m ($1.039bn), becoming the first club in any sport to breach the symbolic $1bn barrier.

    The hub is Barça’s ‘most important’ project. ‘The sportsmen of the future will perform much better than the ones now’

    Josep Maria Bartomeu
    All top clubs now pay their players more than ever before and in return demand unprecedented dedication. The rock-star habits of pre-1990s footballers have almost died out, though it’s still not unheard of for a star player to light up in the dressing room after a match or have a couple of drinks in town. But clubs increasingly use their growing funds and staff numbers to search for incremental gains, both on and off the field.

    It’s impossible to know whether Barça’s Innovation Hub is trendsetting within football, because their rivals are secretive. “Other clubs are afraid of sharing what they know,” says Bartomeu, who (mostly) does want to share.

    Ignacio Palacios-Huerta, a director of the football club Athletic Bilbao and a professor at the London School of Economics, says that in football data analytics, at least, “There is clear leadership by one club: Liverpool. They have a group of four or five PhDs in maths and physics, and they know football.” But Palacios-Huerta praises Barça for letting the hub’s specialists research freely. And Barcelona’s innovations may be wider-ranging than Liverpool’s.

    The hub’s 16 staff are in touch with officials throughout Barça, spreading the best innovations around the club. But the hub is meant to be more than an internal tool. Bartomeu, 56, says: “We have the best laboratory in the world — 2,500 men and women athletes from eight years old to 30, in different sports.”

    Lionel Messi in action in Barcelona’s 3-0 win over rivals Real Madrid this week, which earned them a place in the Copa del Rey final © Getty Images
    Barça field men’s, women’s and children’s teams in sports from basketball to roller hockey. The start-ups or universities with which Barcelona are partnered can test their findings on athletes. Sometimes Barça’s staff help co-develop a product. If any of this work results in a breakthrough in, say, treating hamstring injuries, then Barça’s athletes will benefit first.

    After that, though, the club hope to spread any new products throughout global sport. That’s partly out of a sense of social duty — Barça take their motto, Més que un club (Catalan for “More than a club”), seriously — and partly in the hope of revenues. If a company can market a product as “tested at FC Barcelona”, the club will charge royalties. And if the product is in sleep or nutrition, areas in which elite athletes and ordinary mortals have similar needs, revenues could be large.

    Now Barça plan to launch investment funds, with initial outside capital of €125m, to invest in tech and sports projects worldwide. The club are exchanging ideas less with their football rivals than with American sports franchises, from the San Francisco 49ers of gridiron football to basketball’s Golden State Warriors.

    Marta Plana, the board member who oversees the hub, talks about Barça becoming “the Silicon Valley of sport”. There’s one big difference: the Valley’s much-trumpeted cult of failure doesn’t apply here. For Barcelona, two defeats in a row is a disaster. The club cannot let innovation impede performance today.

    Nonetheless, Barça think longer term than most football clubs. The Catalan merchant families who traditionally staff the board, and most of the 145,000 members (socios), who jointly own the club, expect to stick around here their whole lives. They care about the footballers of the future.

    The hard part of innovation isn’t having ideas, one club official told me; it’s implementing them. If Barça can do that, and Messi and his teammates benefit, that will change sport.

    The coach
    Small, slender and smiling, Ernesto Valverde seems too slight a figure to be coach of a giant club. Never a superstar player, he spent his coaching career at middling clubs, before moving here from Athletic Bilbao in 2017, aged 53. Now, his office overlooks Barça’s first-team training ground, the Camp Tito Vilanova — named after one of his predecessors, who died of throat cancer in 2014.

    Ernesto Valverde, who took over as Barcelona’s head coach in May 2017. ‘This is a continuous sport in which the coach has barely any influence. So, football belongs to the players’ © Ciro Frank Schiappa
    Valverde’s office walls are almost bare except for the first-team schedule. There’s hardly a personal touch in the room. He understands that in this club — run by locals, where players often stay their whole careers — the first-team coach is a mere passer-by. Two days after we spoke, he renewed his contract until 2020, but that won’t mean much if he loses a few games. Valverde and his team of data and video analysts spend much of their week analysing Barça’s next opponent. He told me how he transmits insights to his players — insofar as they need them.

    The team’s basic playing style barely changes from match to match. They aim to play a passing game in the opponent’s half and to lose the ball in dangerous positions no more than six times a match, allowing the opposition about three threatening attacks. More than six, and Barça aren’t playing well.

    For 45 minutes at a time, non-stop, the player takes his own decisions. The great players analyse the game better than I do

    Barcelona coach Ernesto Valverde
    The tactics for any particular match are only a crutch, says Valverde. “Even when a player is anarchic, what the tactic does is help him. I remember an American author who said that, ‘When nothing works, the tactic helps you to find your place, gives you an order. When everything is working, that day it’s heaven and you forget about the tactics.’ ”

    Before each match, Valverde tells his men where opposing players typically station themselves, which ones leave defensive gaps and in which phases of matches the opposition declines physically. Yet he attaches limited value to his own advice. “The beginning of a game is always a surprise, because you don’t know what the rival has been preparing. The other day against Athletic Club [Bilbao], for example, we were expecting some very high pressure and, in fact, it wasn’t that high. So, Christ, in the beginning we were a bit out of place.”

    Marta Plana, the board member who oversees the innovation hub, talks about Barça becoming ‘the Silicon Valley of sport’ © Ciro Frank Schiappa
    Once a match kicks off, Valverde is almost just an onlooker. He grins: “This is a game where the coach has less margin than any coach in another sport, because I’m shouting to the player over there, and he doesn’t hear me, and the one by my side doesn’t either. This is a continuous sport in which the coach has barely any influence, or at least much less than in basketball: we only have three substitutions, the game never stops [for time-outs]. So, football belongs to the players. For 45 minutes at a time, non-stop, the player takes his own decisions. I have to say that the great players analyse the game better than I do.”

    Then he corrects himself: “Instead of analysing, I’d say they interpret play. It’s different. On the field, you can’t think, you must play.” Messi is an extreme case: he reserves the “first minutes” of each match for interpretation, says Valverde.

    During that time, the player ignores the ball and takes a reconnaissance walk around the opposition defence, fixing each man’s position in his head. Valverde says: “Then, as the game advances, he gets in little by little. But he knows perfectly where the rivals’ weaknesses are.”

    Barcelona players, including Sergio Busquets (sixth from left) Lionel Messi (centre) and Luis Suárez (third from right), at the club’s first-team training ground
    Barça’s players demand highly specific advice. In Valverde’s words: “The player wants a solution.” For instance, twice in the past year, Messi has rolled a free kick under the opposition’s defensive wall into the net after staff had told him all the players in the wall would probably jump.

    “This is not data,” cautions Valverde. “You just see in the video that it’s a pattern that keeps repeating itself.” But meanwhile, he points out, opponents are studying Barcelona’s tendencies too: when Barça took a free kick against Real Madrid in February, Madrid’s defender Marcelo “lay down on the grass” to block any low shot.

    Messi knows perfectly where the rivals’ weaknesses are

    Coach Ernesto Valverde
    Similarly, Barça’s keepers are briefed on opposing players’ shooting habits. “Our keepers’ trainer shows a video about what they do when alone in front of the goalkeeper — if this one always shoots to this or that side, or the other one prefers to shoot straight and very hard. Like [Athletic Bilbao’s Iñaki] Williams the other day: he’s going to shoot very hard and the goalkeeper has to stand in front of him and hold on.”

    Match data
    Barcelona’s data analysts spend their lives looking for an edge for their team. They wade through pass completion rates, maximum sprint speeds and heatmaps of each player’s movements. Yet talk to them, and they express extreme scepticism about their own work. One told me he didn’t think he had ever helped Barça win a match. When pressed, he conceded: “0.01 per cent.”

    Coaches made little difference either, he added. Valverde concurs: “Data are not decisive. Or perhaps they are not decisive yet.” But Barça are trying to peer into the future and imagine the day when data might be.

    At least the analysts are learning which match data to discount. The first statistics that became widely available, from the 1990s, were the easiest ones to measure: number of passes, tackles, shots etc. These “event data” — measures of what a player does on the ball — are still often shown on TV. However, the average player has the ball for only about two minutes a game. The main question of football may be how he positions himself in the other 88 minutes. Is he controlling crucial spaces and creating space for teammates? Like everything in football, all this is very open to interpretation, but a newer family of stats seems capable of shedding some light: tracking data.

    Barça began using GPS to track their own players in training and matches nearly a decade ago, even before Europe’s football association Uefa formally permitted the practice. “This was revolutionary,” exults president Bartomeu. Now the club use a new system, Wimu, which the club co-developed with Spanish start-up RealTrack Systems. Wimu relies on wearable sensors to track players’ positions, speed, accelerations, recovery distance, heartbeat, force of collisions etc.

    Attacking in football is about creating superiorities. These can be numerical (two of your players against one of theirs), positional (your player controls a space) or qualitative (Messi dribbling against an inferior opponent). Barça hope that tracking data can uncover ways to create superiorities.

    For now, the club’s analysts can barely help the players do that. On the contrary: the analysts learn about football by observing the most intelligent players. For instance, Barça’s midfielder Sergio Busquets, the team’s pivote, knows just how to draw an opponent towards him and then release a teammate into the space the man has left. No coach shouting instructions at him through an imaginary earpiece could advise him better.

    How to identify intelligent footballers? A Barcelona official fantasises about one day tracking players’ brains. For now, though, the analysts suspect that the most intelligent players — Busquets, Andrés Iniesta or Messi — are those who almost always face the right way on the field.

    Johan Cruyff playing for Barcelona in a Uefa cup tie against Aston Villa in 1978 © Getty Images
    Here, as in so many cases, the analysts haven’t got beyond an intuition that Johan Cruyff, the Dutch father of Barcelona’s football, had nearly 50 years ago. Cruyff played for Barça in the 1970s, coached the team from 1988 to 1996 and largely invented the passing game that the club still play. He could rhapsodise for hours about players who were “turned” the right way. He cared much less about a player’s size and speed.

    For now, the club’s analysts spend much of their time watching and cutting videos of opposing teams. Over the next decade, Barça expect this work to be automated. That will free up humans to devote their time to studying the clips to find the opponents’ weaknesses.

    Transfers
    How do Barcelona recruit players? Valverde, the coach, says: “I know there are teams who have bought a player after looking closely at his data, but I’m still not convinced. Sure, we look at the data of a player we’re interested in.

    “For example, if we’re going to buy Lenglet [the defender Clément Lenglet, signed from Sevilla for €35m last summer], we look at his speed, his number of ball recoveries, the attacks he has interrupted.” But, above all, says Valverde, the club ask people around the player about his psychology. “Because if a guy comes here with amazing data but he’s [psychologically] a satellite . . . ”

    Josep Maria Bartomeu: ‘Nobody comes here for the money. They come here because they know they will enjoy playing football’ © Ciro Frank Schiappa
    You might imagine that luring players to Barcelona is easy. After all, this famous club pay the highest salaries of any sports team on earth. The average annual salary in Barça’s senior squad was £10.45m (€12.2m) last year (excluding endorsements and other extracurricular activity), according to Sporting Intelligence. Real Madrid were a distant second, and basketball club Oklahoma City Thunder third.

    Club president Bartomeu adds a caveat: he says the performance component of pay at Barça is usually about 40 per cent — high for football. “Nobody comes here for the money,” he insists. “They know. They come here because they know they will enjoy playing football.”

    Not all the players I wanted to sign have come to Barcelona

    Club president Josep Maria Bartomeu
    But he adds: “Not all the players I wanted to sign have come to Barcelona. I have examples that I cannot say — very important players now playing at other clubs. We told them to come, they were excited but at the last moment they said, ‘I can’t sign because I will be on the bench.’ We don’t want them. Sometimes, they are not strong enough to say, ‘Where do you want me to play? Xavi is playing, why do you want me? You want me to play in the Leo Messi position, I can’t.’ At the time [goalkeeper] Víctor Valdés was there, nobody wanted to come to Barcelona. Why? To sit on the bench? So that’s the big difficulty.”

    For similar reasons, many players in Barcelona’s fabled academy, La Masía, move elsewhere as teenagers. Bartomeu sighs: “Sometimes they say, ‘What am I going to do here? [Am I going to be good enough] to put Busquets on the bench? I can’t.’ ”

    Injuries
    When a player earning about €10m a year misses a fortnight’s football, it’s a disaster. Barça dream of foreseeing and avoiding every injury. Valverde says: “All players wear a chip that monitors the training sessions. We’d like to establish, through our data from training — the sprints, the speed they achieve etc — if we can predict stress, or injury.” But the club will need to build up the knowledge base largely by themselves. Medicine currently has little to say about football injuries.

    That’s because elite footballers have unusual medical needs. Nearly a third of injuries in professional football are muscular, with hamstrings the most common culprit. General medical research hasn’t taken the issue very seriously, because an ordinary person who pulls a hamstring can still go to work. And Barça cannot do much in-house research, because the club’s sample size of elite adult male footballers is only about 25. Other leading football clubs are unwilling to share their medical data. So Barça are now partnering — usually with scientists — in about 40 studies of muscle and tendon injuries.

    The focus is on individualising each player’s care. It’s relatively easy to monitor each person’s external load: how many games of what intensity has he played recently? Barça are now making progress on measuring the internal load: how is a player reacting psychologically, biomechanically and physiologically to that external load? The first-team doctor Ricard Pruna has researched whether a footballer’s genetic profile might predict particular injuries.

    Yet even when Barça’s doctors think they know what treatment a player needs, they still need to persuade him. Modern football clubs seek ever more control over their players, but modern players push back. An elite footballer today is like the head of a small business, who contracts his playing services to a club for two or three hours a day. He often employs his own physiotherapist or strength coach, who may steer him towards the latest fashionable treatment (right now, ice baths). He may not tell the club what he’s doing. Barça aim to dissuade injured players from going private, so as to retain control of their treatment and protect them against potential quacks. That’s why, for instance, the club forked out for what it considers the best MRI machine on earth. The device can produce images of a single millimetre of muscle, showing exactly where a tear is.

  57. Words on a Blog

    Pedro, yeah sorry, scepticism isn’t the right word – too strong.

    What I meant to say is that they recognise that the analysis is still in its early stages of development in terms of what makes a good/great player, and how to improve that player

  58. salpardisenyc

    Not to worry boys I left out the image from article or Ronaldinho and Sol getting down in 06.

    That will never not haunt.

    Almunia getting beat near post by Eto… smh.

  59. Marko

    Sure, we look at the data of a player we’re interested in.“For example, if we’re going to buy Lenglet [the defender Clément Lenglet, signed from Sevilla for €35m last summer], we look at his speed, his number of ball recoveries, the attacks he has interrupted.” But, above all, says Valverde, the club ask people around the player about his psychology. “Because if a guy comes here with amazing data but he’s [psychologically] a satellite . . . ”

    Good article. I like this part though because I have a feeling that we signed one or two players in the last few years based purely on analytics and never took into account the player’s mentality or persona. And yes I’m referring to Xhaka and Mustafi

  60. Words on a Blog

    Marko, for Mustafi, maybe we forgot to specify “number of fouls in dangerous areas” and “number of penalties conceded” as key metrics for a central defender!

  61. Freddie Ljungberg

    “This is a game where the coach has less margin than any coach in another sport, because I’m shouting to the player over there, and he doesn’t hear me, and the one by my side doesn’t either. This is a continuous sport in which the coach has barely any influence, or at least much less than in basketball: we only have three substitutions, the game never stops [for time-outs]. So, football belongs to the players. For 45 minutes at a time, non-stop, the player takes his own decisions. I have to say that the great players analyse the game better than I do.”

    And this is exactly why we need better players, and why I think far too much importance is put on the manager by some people here.

  62. salpardisenyc

    Fast Freddie

    Better players indeed.

    Something like this doable for next season….. maybe.

    _Nkunku__PEA___Mhki_
    ________Aouar______
    ____Torreira__Guend__
    Gayà__M.Sarr__Sokratis__Bellerin
    ___________Leno____________

    Biggest task for Emery and Co this summer is figuring what happens with Ozil and executing. The options are sell, sell + pay some wage or get him performing weekly. Hamstrung until that happens.

  63. Marko

    Nkunku isn’t a winger and Aouar is gonna be so tough to pick up because he’s highly sought after. I can see Cengiz or Pepe and someone else being targeted as forwards and I’ve a feeling that Tagliafico and Konate will be the defensive targets at the very least. After that a midfielder might be targeted if certain players are sold. I’m expecting us to be busy especially if Monchi is hired. That or Kroenke out

  64. salparadisenyc

    Unai Emery on Nkunku:

    “He is capable of playing out wide on either flank, through the centre and even as a wing-back, a mix of positions ”

    Don’t be such a kill joy Marko, Aouar is a possible if they get it right.

  65. MidwestGun

    This summer is going to be epic.. No WC.. No Euro distractions. No Wenger dithering.. Questions remain… will we get CL.. Will we be able to move out big pay wage players. And who will be healthy and will any youth players be promoted.. Stay tuned.. actually looking forward to a summer transfer window for once to be honest.

  66. Freddie Ljungberg

    Marko

    Can’t see us not at least trying for Fornals and Brandt, we can’t resist a cheap buyout clause and at 22m each they’re both bargains.
    Pepe would be an incredible bonus.
    Could see us going for Marcus Thuram if we decide to raise funds by selling one of our strikers. Can play on the wing as well.

    Can’t see us going for Nkunku and Aouar will be almost impossible to get as you say with City and Barca interested among others.

    Hoping for a CM to replace Xhaka, preferably Rabiot on a free along with a CB and LB.

    Plenty of players out there that will improve us greatly, no excuses this time around.

  67. Marko

    It’s like saying AMN can play on the wing I mean he can but Nkunku is primarily a CM I would be disappointed if the best we could do is get Nkunku in and play him on the wing. I would say that Aouar is a dream I’m not being a kill joy I’d absolutely love him he’s an outstanding talent but the second he comes available in the transfer market you’ll have everyone after him. Fornals much more likely. I wonder if the stuff about Brandt having a reasonable release clause is true. I wonder if that’s something we’re looking into

  68. salparadisenyc

    I’d wager were selling one of our strikers to generate funds, my moneys on Lacazette. I’m not happy about it, but that the reality.

    Unless we get Champions league.

  69. Dissenter

    Pedro
    All the data analytics in the world has not stopped Barca from signing shitty platers over the past few years.

    We have a Barca player in our camp who’s not better than Iwobi.

  70. Marko

    At the very least we should be in for a good summer. Depending on our final league position if could be great. Monchi in with a decent budget and carte blanche over the squad could be the kick in the balls this club needs

  71. Dissenter

    The defining factor for Barca is Leo Messi, forget all the data nonsense … and I’m not ridiculing data.
    All the best data cannot replace a once-in-a-century player.
    Messi alone is responsible for at least a quarter of the growth that club has had in the last decade.

  72. salparadisenyc

    Great line about Messi in that article from Valverde.

    “Messi reserves the first minutes of match for interpretation….”

    Gold

  73. Marko

    I think one of the strikers are off too. Saw that marca had us linked with Jovic. On a two year loan with an option to buy for 6 million euros you’d imagine Frankfurt will buy him for 6 and sell him for something we could afford. 30-40 million I would imagine. It’d be a smart move replacing a 27 or 30 year old with a 21 year old hot prospect

  74. salparadisenyc

    Looool

    Ravwobi crushing Berocca to get thru the opening 10, awaiting the residual from last night to kick in.

    TRUTH

  75. China1

    Don’t forget psg and juve

    Apart from the sick Monaco campaign both psg and juve have owned a monopoly on titles for ages between those leagues

    People talk up Italy because tons and Napoli are decent teams, but the reality is Italy is a one team league and a foregone conclusion recently.

  76. China1

    Sorry to be a kill joy but I don’t have faith that arsenal will sign more than 2 or 3 bailed on starters this summer

  77. Un Battle Angel

    China

    Freddie is living in la la PlayStation land. We aren’t going out and buying half a new team and certainly nowhere near the quality he thinks we should be attracting.
    Arsenal’s time at the top table is over for a few years
    Time to just accept it

  78. Freddie Ljungberg

    Yes, UN, how could we possibly be looking at 2 22m players, 1 on a free and Konate at 30m and Thuram at 20-25, we should aim much lower than that. What can we get in the sub 5m bracket?

  79. Pierre

    Messi is an extreme case: he reserves the “first minutes” of each match for interpretation, says Valverde.During that time, the player ignores the ball and takes a reconnaissance walk around the opposition defence, fixing each man’s position in his head. Valverde says: “Then, as the game advances, he gets in little by little. But he knows perfectly where the rivals’ weaknesses are.”

    This I like , it shows intelligence on a football pitch and I have no doubt that Messi has the same level of thinking throughout the game , looking for weaknesses in the opposition whilst the ball is nowhere to be seen.
    You need confidence , some would say arrogance, in your own ability to do this plus you would need a manager with a great understanding of the game and the player for it to happen.

    Going through the years it was only the very best players at the peak of their careers who had the mindset to take a step back from all that is going on around them to assess the situation during a match .
    Pele, cruyff, platini, cantona and our own Thierry Henry were such players.

  80. Champagne charlie

    “Yes, UN, how could we possibly be looking at 2 22m players, 1 on a free and Konate at 30m and Thuram at 20-25, we should aim much lower than that. What can we get in the sub 5m bracket?“

    Just the 100 mil then, and that’s without considering the outlay it would take to bring Rabiot on board as a bosman. You saw the numbers involved with Ramsey’s Juve deal, you actually think Rabiot is going to be looking for less?

  81. Freddie Ljungberg

    Depends on our budget no? Reports vary between 45 and 100m, without selling anyone. We could basically break even if we sold off Mustafi, Chambers, Elneny and Xhaka and one of our strikers. If we sell/give away Ozil as well we free up a lot of wages.

    (That’s 2 players that doesn’t play for us and our 2 weakest links gone, hardly groundbreaking stuff)

    Rabiot was going to sign for Barca for 10-15m signing on fee and 170k wages, you think we can’t afford that?

    I’m not saying this is what will happen btw, I’m saying it’s something we can do if we have any ambition.

  82. Champagne charlie

    Freddie

    You know the figures involved with Rabiot verbatim? Or are you basing that, and some valuations, on paper talk?

    Of course it depends on our budget, it always does. Not one player over 30 mil though so that will mean certain fans aren’t happy to call that ambitious, or expect that 5 ‘superior’ players will lead to a better team.