Thursday, September 15, 2011


I'm not sure if I've written about this before or not, but my feelings on baseball's book of unwritten etiquette are complicated. I feel like there are plenty of things that are frowned upon rightly (like baserunners calling fielders off of pop flies, a la Alex Rodriguez), quite a few that are unjustly outlawed (celebrating anything, ever), and some that are considered part of the game that shouldn't (like most, if not all, instances of intentionally throwing at a batter).

A few of these came into conflict the past couple of nights in the Dodgers-Diamondbacks series, and for me it's a really good example of baseball's automated policing system going awry. Which should surprise nobody, considering the fact that a 95 mph fastball to the ribs is judge, jury, and executioner.

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On Tuesday night, the Diamondbacks and Dodgers played a baseball game. During the seventh inning of that game, Gerardo Parra faced Hong-Chih Kuo with the bases empty and two outs. Parra decided to bunt, for some reason - with none on and two outs, I presume he was trying to bunt for a hit, as there's no other sane explanation. He squared really early, though, so I don't know what was going on there. Here's where the pitch went (credit Chad Moriyama, via True Blue LA):

As the post on True Blue LA mantions, Kuo doesn't have the best control in the league, and the Dodgers had a one-run lead at that point - why put the tying run on base? I don't think he was trying to hit Parra on purpose, and surely not square in the face; probably he was just going inside to make the bunt tougher to execute, and since he changed his pitch location at the last second he missed. That's an uninformed guess, but it makes a fair amount of sense.

What also makes sense is a man getting mad about a baseball being thrown at his face, intentionally or not. I certainly would. So when Parra homered later in the at-bat, he styled it - he watched it go (it was a no-doubter) and took his time rounding the bases. Honestly, considering some of the things I've seen people do to celebrate scoring in other sports, this is pretty mild, and understandable considering the circumstances. "You're going to throw at my face? Okay, now this is happening." In the grand scheme of things, not that bad.

Unless you're the Dodgers, who considered it a mortal sin. Catcher A.J. Ellis, who I've never heard of (possibly more a commentary on the amount of attention I pay the Dodgers than on his skill as a baseballer, as his half-win above replacement in 25 games is certainly not terrible), had words with Parra as he finished off his home run. And Clayton Kershaw went absolutely nuts (again, via Chad Moriyama by way of True Blue LA).

So something was probably destined to happen in the next game, which Kershaw (one of the top pitchers in the league, by the way) started. And sure enough, when Parra led off the sixth inning, Kershaw zitzed him (this one via Jeff Sullivan's incomparable Twitter).

As you can see at the end there, umpire Bill Welke follows up the HBP by zitzing Kershaw, ejecting him immediately. Typically I hate ejections, because I feel like a lot of them are preventable by umpires not taking themselves so damn seriously, but I am completely okay with this one.

Was Gerardo Parra being a bit of a prat? Maybe. I don't think Kuo was trying to hit him, and maybe he showed up the opposition. But I don't care about that. There's a foolproof solution to the problem of getting shown up after allowing a home run: don't give up home runs. It's one of the few things pitchers have some control over, and yet when it happens they tend, more often than not, to act like they've been victimized. Much of this was in Kuo's hands, and he botched it. It would have been bad enough if he'd been the one doing the headhunting, but for Kershaw to do it almost 24 hours later is just unconscionable. Everything here points to a premeditated attack on a specific individual for a pretty lame reason, and it puts a bit of a black mark on my estimation of a really, really good young pitcher.

I don't want to go full Plaschke here (I really REALLY don't), I don't want to get self-righteous and overbearing about meaningless stuff, but I really don't think this is meaningless. I tire of the self-importance of baseball players. They seem to think that anything that upsets them is A Blight On The Game, and take it them upon themselves to rectify such slights with deadly force. Let's not forget - it's hard to control the placement of a thrown baseball, and the impact of a fastball can change lives. People have been hit before and been thereafter unable to play baseball and earn a living. A man has died on the field. A fastball aimed at the ribs can just as well end up in the eye, just as Kuo's pitch likely wasn't meant for Parra's head. In almost every occasion, this is simply an inappropriate way for a pitcher to express displeasure about a guy reminding you that you screwed up.

I love baseball, and compared to a lot of sports it's not that bad about this, but there is a lot left from sporting antiquity still in the game, and most of it needs to leave. The idea that trying to injure someone is legitimate justice for a perceived slight; the idea that celebrations of good plays are evil; the idea that there is some great Form of Baseball that must be protected. A guy almost got hit in the face. He hit a home run. He enjoyed it. Why is that something that should cause the gnashing of teeth and the rending of clothes? Just grow up, already.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Scarce resources

I wrote this a while ago and meant to post it, but somehow never did. It's slightly outdated, but I feel that I should post it unchanged, for reasons that I cannot really explain. Here it is.

Mere months ago, Sandy Alderson was installed as the Mets' general manager, and from many of his early comments on the team, it's clear that the Alderson regime (including scouting guru and Moneyball star Paul DePodesta) is putting a good deal of weight on the acquisition of young talent and its development in the farm system. Partially because of this, and partially because of the Mets' slow start to 2011, there have been calls from some quarters to throw in the towel on this season and this incarnation of the Mets, and begin trading the more market-valuable players on the team for prospects. Honestly there's not a lot there, so when people say "there are no untouchables" and "the farm system should be restocked," what they're basically doing it calling for is the exit of David Wright and Jose Reyes.

I agree with the tenor of the regime thus far - that is, that the draft and youth development are important, and further that they are more effective team building strategies than simply buying the big free agent of the offseason year after year - and I agree with the idea that in theory, no player on the roster should be dogmatically untouchable. Everyone should be available, but Wright and Reyes not only should be the last to go, but they should be traded only in the event of a monumental, earth-shattering offer.

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The value of a star

David Wright and Jose Reyes are two of the best position players that have ever graced the Met payroll. Through 2010, according to baseball-reference's version of the Wins Above Replacement statistic (in case you're unfamiliar, WAR measures a player's individual contribution to his team's win total), Wright and Reyes are the third and eighth-best position players in the franchise's history.

Granted, the Mets have not been that good at developing position players throughout their history, and most of their best players spent significant periods of time playing for other teams. WAR is a cumulative statistic - that is, the longer one plays, the more wins he accumulates. David Wright is 28, and Jose Reyes is 27. Neither one has accumulated 4,000 plate appearances as a Met. Both Wright and Reyes have a ways to go and among the leaders in franchise WAR, only Carlos Beltran is still active (and sadly, most likely is in his final year as a Met). If both continue at anything resembling their career average pace, they are likely to continue to ascend that list.

The average season for both Wright and Reyes places them in the outer fringes of the elite level. When you look at WAR as a rate statistic per 700 plate appearances (roughly the number a player will have in a 160-game span), David Wright clocks in at 5.25, with Jose Reyes at 4.08. What does that mean? In 2010, in 675 plate appearances, Matt Holliday had a WAR of 5.3. Ichiro Suzuki, in 732 PA, had a WAR of 4.1. In other words, the average years for Wright and Reyes are roughly the seasons that Holliday and Ichiro had last year.

Would you ever even dream of trading away Ichiro? It's not outside of the realm of possibility that if Jack Zduriencik tried to pull that, he'd be arrested for crimes against Seattle.

Matt Holliday's case is a pretty good example of why trading a really good player in his prime (or thereabouts) is a bad idea. He's been traded twice in the past few years - in November 2008, from Colorado to Oakland; and again in July of 2009, from Oakland to St. Louis. Both situations were relatively similar to the one in which the Mets currently find themselves - teams that are likely not going to win anything that are trying to rebuild for the future by trading a star player for young prospects.

When the Rockies dealt Holliday, they got three players in return: Greg Smith, Huston Street, and Carlos Gonzalez. Since the trade (two full seasons, then the start of this one), Holliday has a rWAR (again, that's Baseball Reference Wins Above Replacement) of 11.8. Greg Smith, in very limited big-league time, comes in at -0.2. Huston Street, as a reliever with injury problems, hasn't pitched much, so he registers a rWAR of 3.1. Last year's surprise MVP candidate CarGo (an awful nickname, by the way) has a post-trade rWAR of 6.1. That's 9 wins above replacement level from the Rockies' haul against the 11.8 Holliday's put up himself. Take into account the fact that Gonzalez is young (meaning that he will probably last longer than Holliday, but also that his continued performance is unproven), and I'm going to call this trade somewhere between a wash and a loss for the Rockies, depending on your projections for Gonzalez's future.

The A's only kept Holliday for about half a season before moving him along. In return, they got Brett Wallace, Shane Peterson, and Clayton Mortensen. None are with the A's major league squad. Wallace was traded to the Blue Jays for a fellow prospect (Michael Taylor, who also has not reached the majors). Peterson plays for Sacramento in the Pacific Coast League. Mortensen was traded to the Rockies after being designated for assignment, which usually isn't a great sign.

These are all gifted baseball players, and some or all of them might turn out to be great. Carlos Gonzalez (among others) has a shot at that. But here you can see the volatility of the baseball prospect: one becomes an MVP candidate, one is traded again and again, several remain in the minor leagues. You can't know what you're going to get from a young player - and yet, Matt Holliday just keeps producing at his expected high level. If the Mets trade Wright or Reyes, they might get the next Carlos Gonzalez, or they might get the next Lastings Milledge or Alex Escobar. There's no guarantee. These proven players are so good that it's not easy to replace them, especially with young players who may or may not pan out. Trading away prospects is almost always a better strategy than holding onto them, and the reverse is also true - if you have an elite player, and you have any chance at keeping that player for the long term, you should do so.

A reason to watch

Let's be honest, the Mets are not very good and probably won't be all season. Sandy Alderson and his posse are smart though, and they will have this franchise in shape - from top to bottom - very soon. However, I fear that too much losing may alienate the fanbase, and that will only be exacerbated by jettisoning the only two legitimate, healthy star-caliber players the Mets have. That may not seem like a huge deal, but when you have a team with the recent media buzz that the Mets have (spoiler alert: it's not good), you need all the help you can get when trying to attract any kind of free agent. You also need that help in negotiating with high-level amateur talent, which the Mets should be doing (internationally and through the draft) at a high level; knowing the history of Alderson and his cadre, this is something that's likely to happen. Scott Boras and people like him can use things like this to milk more and more money out of a team, which in turn will reduce the team's ability to draft or sign large quantities of numbers - the kind of numbers you need to guard against the volatility that we saw in the Matt Holliday trades.

To maintain any kind of positivity in the Mets fanbase, David Wright and Jose Reyes need to stay in Queens. To win now and in the future, David Wright and Jose Reyes must be Mets. To get the kind of players the Mets will need in the future, Wright and Reyes need to stay with the team. Players like them don't come along every day and are hard to replace, and they give the fans a reason to watch in a time when there isn't a lot of winning happening. There is no reason to trade Wright and Reyes aside from a pure shake-up move. There is no good reason to trade them.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

One Aaron Ramsey

Photo from RedAction Arsenal supporters group. No infringement or commercial gain intended

Admittedly it's been a while since I've posted. I didn't get to say anything about the huge first leg win against Barcelona, so I'll have to wait until after the second leg to share my thoughts. Instead, here's Stoke.

It's been just slightly less than a year since the last time Arsenal played Stoke City. It's been just slightly less than a year since the last time Aaron Ramsey played for Arsenal. On February 27 of last year, Ryan Shawcross broke Ramsey's leg, and today Arsenal will finally get a chance to exact some revenge on the pitch, rather than via the media sniping than managers Wenger and Pulis have engaged in sporadically through the interval, or via comedians' rants.

This is the Arsenal of 2011 so the revenge will ostensibly be through the avenue of an avalanche of goals, rather than through more primitive means. Both Robin van Persie and Laurent Koscielny will miss the match with (supposedly) minor injuries, but I hope that the remaining team will take this opportunity to avenge one of their own seriously. It would appear that the support at the Emirates will be.

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Obviously when a side suffers injuries like Ramsey's, and Eduardo's in 2008, tackling will be a sore subject. Prevailing wisdom is that the best way to stop Arsenal's passing/possession game is to rough them up, and that's what most teams try to do against them. Whether there's intent to injure or whether those involved are "that kind of player" is irrelevant. It's a reckless style of play, and it's walking a tightrope - and Arsenal have been pushed off that tightrope twice in the past few years.

The fact that Arsenal are subject to so much dangerous play makes certain of the opposition's chants and claims particularly galling. Surely you're already familiar with the "same old Arsenal, always cheating" refrain that rains upon our boys' heads whenever they're knocked, or whenever they're called for a foul. It's been around forever, and as time passes it's become more and more inaccurate. In the past, Arsenal have been a rough team, and Eboue especially used to dive a bit (among others, I'm sure). But none of that really happens anymore. If one of our players does dive, now he admits it, apologizes, promises never to do it again, and gives an interview about the whole mess.

So when I hear about what's been going on amongst the followers of our next two opponents, I get pretty upset. This was taken near Stoke, and this is evidently coming from a Brum fan (leading up to the Carling Cup final this weekend). They're trying things like getting the Twitter hashtag "#dirtyarsenal" trending. As of yet, these efforts have failed, likely because Stoke and Birmingham City don't actually have any fans.*

So Arsenal are dirty then, are we? Disturbing images forthcoming, for an editorial point. So is this dirty? Ramsey was cheating then, eh Stoke? Or is this what the Birmingham fans are referring to? Yes, I suppose Eduardo was illegally in Martin Taylor's way. That's probably it.

Back when we actually were a bit dirty, there's not really anything I could say about this. But when the defensive scheme against Arsenal is "they don't like it up 'em," and when our players are suffering career-defining injuries, and THEN to be called dirty when we're not...well, honestly it incenses me. It's the equivalent of getting mugged on a city street, then accused of assault by the muggers without even fighting back.

The facts are these: Arsenal are no dirtier than any other team. They are not perfect, but they are not cheaters. On the other hand, teams like Stoke are consistently and (evidently) intentionally dangerous in their play. They are systematically dirty. They may not always get called for a foul, but anyone who's seen them play knows this to be true. For them to accuse other teams - ANY other teams, as even Newcastle, whom I despise, are FC Barcelona compared to the Potters - of being dirty is high comedy.

This is why I want revenge on Stoke and Birmingham this week. I want Aaron Ramsey and Eduardo (even though he's no longer with Arsenal) to be avenged. I want the fans calling us dirty, the ones claiming that RYAN SHAWCROSS is getting a "raw deal," the ones who mock injuries and cheer goons...I want them to suffer. I want the metaphorical blood that comes from the wound of a goal scored, rather than the very real blood of a double leg fracture or a broken leg and open dislocation. I don't want to injure a single player - not even Shawcross. But I want them to hurt.

Because there is only one Aaron Ramsey, and only one Eduardo. And they deserve better than they got.

*Yeah, the picture's a joke. It's from warm-ups. But have you ever met a real Stoke fan? That's what I thought.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Gary Cahill: good, or just English?

Gary Cahill, gazing into the future. (Creative Commons/Jacoplane)

I hate to feed the transfer frenzy stirred up by the general media, but this was something I couldn't resist taking a swing at. For those opposed to transfer mania, I'm sorry. But I'm doing it anyway.

The situation

The news concerning Arsenal's defense is not good. Thomas Vermaelen, out since August with an Achilles injury and setback after setback, has had another, and finally is set to have surgery that will put him out at least an additional four-to-six weeks. Sebastien Squillaci, who's slipped into the third-choice center-half role already, has also suffered an injury - he picked up a low-grade hamstring strain against Leeds, and while the injury is not too severe it will put him out fora few weeks, according to Arsene Wenger.

This reduces an already-thin central defense corps to two men - Laurent Koscielny and Johan Djourou - with Alex Song as an emergency back-up.

By the way, that would have to be an extreme emergency in my book. While Song is competent at the center of the defense, he's far too valuable in midfield to be moved. He's finally reached the balance that fans begged for and Wenger envisioned, where he functions effectively on the attack but doesn't neglect defensive duty. He's played very well as a defensive midfielder and I would not want to break his run of form or risk weakening the crucial midfield triangle.

This puts Wenger in an unenviable position - he has had to admit that he needs to buy another central defender. This will weaken his bargaining position, but there isn't much to be done about that.

The linked article from the Guardian lists several possible targets - Per Mertesacker from Werder Bremen, Emir Spahic from Montpelier, and Mamadou Sakho from Paris St. Germain - but I'm going to concentrate on Bolton's Gary Cahill, because I feel that he's the most likely get at this point. The question is this: Is Gary Cahill good as advertised and good enough for Arsenal, or is he a case of a player being overrated simply on the power of his English passport?

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The subject

I feel that I should explain more fully why Cahill is the one I'm concentrating on. Arsenal have been linked to him over and over again ever since the "we need a center-back" meme originated. Here's a report that he was going to replace Gallas (rather than Koscielny and Squillaci), and here's a story from May of 2009 that actually predates Coyle's tenure. Point is: this has been going on for a while.

A big part of the reason I'm on board this time (in terms of the rumor being valid, at least) is that it actually makes some sense logistically. Wenger and Coyle have a bit of a relationship, stemming from the Jack Wilshere loan last year. Wilshere was loaned to Bolton and has credited his time there as having a massive effect on his development as a player. It was undoubtedly a successful loan, and when you have success in a transaction that can surely help in fostering further business. Now Bolton are looking to loan Carlos Vela from Arsenal, and after the success that Wilshere had there I would say that's a splendid idea.

Here's where Gary Cahill comes into play. He's been put on the market by Bolton, due to a need stated by the club's chairman to reduce debts. They want a deal in the neighborhood of £15 million, and will likely be hearing from several clubs about him. Arsenal have the need, and can sweeten the pot with the prospect of Carlos Vela's loan - in fact, that may even bring down the asking price a bit. Coupled with the fact that both managers know they'll get a fair deal from the other and Cahill makes the most economic and logistic sense for Arsenal. In short, as Arseblog said,
Bolton are trying to sign David Wheater from Boro, Bolton want Carlos Vela on loan, Bolton need money, Gary Cahill plays for Bolton. There’s certainly scope there to do a deal but I suppose it all depends on price.
Cahill is particularly attractive for a few ancillary reasons as well. Among others, he's English. I don't tend to care about this too much - I'm not the Don Cherry of football or anything like that, and all of my favorite players aside from Theo Walcott are foreign (well, technically they're all foreign to me, but that's beside the point). His nationality is a positive mainly because of the roster rule changes that give advantages to English-born and home-grown players. Cahill would add an English passport to a squad that doesn't have many in the first-team at the moment. Additionally Cahill has Premier League experience already. I think a bit source of the issues that Arsenal's defense has had to this point has been the fact that two of our three first-choice center-halves are Premier League rookies. Both Koscielny and Squillaci have been candid about the fact that moving to the English style of play takes adjustment. Cahill is already adapted, unlike Mertesacker and the others. Finally, he has a quality that Wenger values highly - he's still young. Cahill is only 25 (and only just, his birthday was in December), should he move to Arsenal it's likely that he'd have several years of top-flight play left in him (barring injury, of course).

Owen Coyle has said that Cahill won't move in the season. If I'm to take all of the transfer rumors with a grain of salt, though, I see no reason not to do the same here. It is surely more reliable - it's straight from the manager, and he is a respectable man - but during the transfer window, I feel like most of what is said comes from the point of view of negotiating rather than pure truth. It's possible that he means this, and likely that if Coyle had his druthers he'd never sell Gary Cahill. But it's also possible that he's simply saying this to try to raise Arsenal's bid - that's probably what I'd do in his place. This is different from the Cesc-to-Barcelona debacle, by the way, because the only ones talking about Cahill are Coyle and the press. If Jack Wilshere and Theo Walcott were saying that it was inevitable that Cahill would sign, that would be one thing. But they're not; if there's anything to this, so far it's been conducted with honor. So I'm not abandoning this thought experiment.

The process

So that's why I'm concentrating on Gary Cahill above all others. The better question is this: should Arsenal? There are very few Premier League statistics openly available, at least as far as I can find. I can look at the top goalscorers and assist leaders all I want, but I can't seem to find passing percentage or tackling stats anywhere, much less anything more advanced than that. So I'm going to do some math myself.

What I want to do is compare Cahill to what Arsenal already have, and see two things: one, whether he could fit into the Arsenal system; and two, whether he's better than or even as good as what we have. I'll use Guardian Chalkboards to do this - I'd rather have a database of rate statistics, but I'll make do with what's available.

To make this manageable I've had to limit the number of games that I'm looking at. I've made a command decision and the matches that I'll look at will be those played against big clubs. I feel these to be the most crucial matches (obviously since they have the most bearing on the title race) and the best approximation of the onslaught that Arsenal usually faces. For Bolton this means one match against Arsenal, two against Liverpool, one against Spurs, one against Manchester City, one against Chelsea, and one against Sunderland.

I have included Spurs because of the weight of the north London derby, Liverpool because though they are in poor form this year they still must be considered a "big club," and Sunderland because they are immediately ahead of Bolton in the table at the moment (in 6th place). Bolton are 1-0-6 (beating only Spurs) in these matches, scoring 6 and allowing 12. They also drew Manchester United 2-2 but Cahill did not figure in the match.

For Arsenal the relevant matches include Liverpool, Bolton (included because of the faceoff against Cahill's own team), two against Chelsea, two against Manchester City, one against Spurs, and one against Manchester United.

You may notice that there is one match more on the Arsenal side of the ledger than the Bolton side. This is not intentional, it just happened that way. If it were likely to influence the results it would be an issue; however, as you're soon to see, in terms of counting statistics a one-match difference won't make a big difference.

Since it's assumed by most Arsenal pundits that when healthy (if that's ever applicable again) Vermaelen is the ace center-back, the Arsenal players that I will compare with Cahill are those who would likely be in most direct competition with him for a starting spot: Djourou and Koscielny. I am using the stats from only one player from each match; thus, when both play, I've gone with Djourou, as he's the fan favorite at the moment and I personally rate him more highly than Koscielny. The statistics for the two players appear relatively similar, so I don't believe this will influence the findings too much.

I've chosen three events to focus on: passes, tackles, and clearances. The reasoning is Arsenal's playing style - first of all, these three are good indicators of pitch positioning; that is, I want to see where Cahill spends most of his time compared with the current Gunners. Since we play such a free-flowing game, positioning is particularly interesting, because if he already plays like an Arsenal player, he'll obviously fit into the squad more easily. Beside that, these three events are, to me, crucial to our style. Passing should be obvious to anyone who's seen even one Arsenal match. Tackles are crucial because Arsenal's game is based on possession - maintaining it is crucial, allowing opponents to maintain it is costly. Clearances are relevant because if the pace that our current team can display - a well-placed clearance to (for example) Walcott can lead to a breakaway chance on goal. This may seem obvious, but it's important to make sure it's known as it applies more directly to our style of play than that of other sides (for example, the Route 1 game that was employed against Arsenal so effectively by Ipswich).

Granted, clearances may seem like an odd choice. I went with that because 1. I hate sustained periods of opponent attacking coupled with poor clearances, which piss me off, and 2. I wanted a third event to increase the sample size, and of those available on the Guardian chalkboards clearances are the next most exclusive to defenders.

So now, at long last, we can look at...

The results

In the relevant games, Gary Cahill was actually fairly comparable to Koscielny and Djourou in both prolificity and efficiency, with some qualifications. In terms of passing he was significantly inferior. In the seven-game sample, Cahill completed only 120 passes out of 183 that were attempted, a success rate of approximately 66 percent (I have rounded all decimals). To compare, Koscielny/Djourou successfully completed their passes at a rate of 86 percent - a whopping 280 out of 324 in an eight-game span. Here is where the irrelevance of the one-game difference becomes evident - Cahill completed fewer than half as many passes as the Arsenal duo, which I doubt one game would affect.

The difference shrinks greatly when we examine tackling. Cahill won 35 out of the 56 tackles he attempted in the sample, a success rate of 63 percent. Djourou and Koscielny both attempted and completed fewer tackles than Cahill - 27 out of 42 - but were incrementally more efficient, with a 64 percent success rate.

In clearances, Cahill emerges the victor on both fronts. He was prolific, with 40 successful clearances made and 61 attempted. He also was efficient - a 66 percent success rate. Compare this to Koscielny and Djourou - a joint 30 clearances out of 50 attempts, with a 60 percent success rate.

To examine positioning and effectiveness, let's look at chalkboards of both the most prolific (in terms of pass attempts) and most efficient (in terms of pass completion percentage) games for the players in question.

by Guardian Chalkboards

This is Cahill's most efficient passing match. Here we can see that Cahill plays a fairly conventional right-side centerback role, although he does move forward at times. In terms of passing, though, the majority of his play takes place on his side of the pitch in the defensive end. He roams within that general area, but does not appear to bomb forward in the way that, for example, William Gallas did.

by Guardian Chalkboards
Keeping in mind that Djourou was playing on the opposite side of the central defense, there are some relevant similarities and differences between the two performances. Looking at the heatmaps you can see that both players complete most of their passes in the same (or equivalent) sections of the pitch. Djourou is not Gallas either, in other words. However, in both the passing map and the heatmap there's an important difference - Djourou's passing is much more compact, and Cahill's more expansive. Both players pass from the same sections of the pitch, but Cahill finds himself in different parts of those sections. He also roams about at times near his own endline, where Djourou attempted only two passes in the sections closest to the endline.

To ensure this isn't an aberration, I want to look at the matches in which the players attempted the greatest number of passes, regardless of success rate. This way we can be sure we're properly seeing the players' typical positioning.

by Guardian Chalkboards

by Guardian Chalkboards
This set of maps is even more instructive because both Cahill and Djourou were playing on the same side of the defense. We see the same thing again - Djourou bunched up, for the most part, where Cahill is more spread out, even bombing forward on the right flank a bit. There's another difference that's more evident here than in the first game - Djourou's passing is (for the most part) much direct and short, where there's more variance in Cahill's, with some long launched and chipped passing.

A note: Koscielny actually had the best game in terms of pass attempts and efficiency in the same match; however, it was the season opener at Liverpool, so I didn't want to use it as it was his first with the club and I felt it might be an outlier due to his unfamiliarity with the Arsenal system.

The conclusions

I will say that I'm a bit surprised by what I've seen. I was expecting to see significantly less quality from Gary Cahill, considering the hype around him - if you couldn't tell from my title, I'd assumed that for the most part he was only rated as highly as he is because he's young and English, rather than actually being good. Based on these findings I think I've underrated him, but I still don't find him to be a worldbeater. In short, he's not just English, he's also actually good. But he's not Franz Beckenbauer or anything like that.

I think that it would take more adjustment than some think for Cahill to fit into Arsenal's system. Based on the data, he's not nearly as efficient in his passing as the current Arsenal central defense, and considering how important possession and accurate passing are to our system, that's a pretty significant issue. On the other hand, it's possible that the data are deceiving - consider the fact that the other players in Cahill's Bolton side are of vastly inferior quality to those playing for Arsenal, and some of the wayward passes may be explained. If Cahill had Cesc Fabregas or Samir Nasri on the other end of his passes, it's likely that his rates would rise. It's also likely that with an increase in the talent around him and an introduction to Wengerball, Cahill would attempt more passes.

On the other hand Cahill would fit in more than most other options. Aside from the reasons I discussed earlier, he clearly has quality (which might be amplified by joining a more talented side). He also plays a similar game in terms of positioning to what the current Arsenal defenders play, though not identical (not a bad thing, mind you - a little variance in the playing styles of players, as long as they fit the system, can be an added wrinkle for the opposition to deal with).

I don't think Cahill is quite as good as what we already have in terms of pure talent. However, he's better than much of what's available (for example, as awesome as he used to be, the occasional Sol Campbell re-return rumors leave a lot to be desired). He's played in nearly a hundred Premier League fixtures and knows the league, and like Koscielny and Djourou and even Vermaelen, he's still young enough to grow and improve.

We definitely need another central defender. If Wenger can get a relatively sane deal done, we could do a lot worse than Gary Cahill.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

West Ham 0-3 Arsenal: Keep calm and carry on

Well, that was better. Arsenal came out with all guns firing and utterly dominated West Ham at Upton Park, who looked well worth their spot at the bottom of the Premier League table. The Gunners managed three goals, and honestly the final scoreline did not flatter the away team's form.

In recent weeks Arsenal have not performed to the level they should against lesser competition - not even lower level but lower league, as both Leeds (1-1 at home in the FA Cup) and Ipswich (1-0 loss away in the Carling Cup) outplayed them. That was not the case against West Ham, as Arsenal dominated play essentially from kickoff to whistle.

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Here are some stats from Orbinho to back that up:
HT Stats West Ham v Arsenal Shots 5-12 On target 2-7 Fouls 5-2 Duels Won % 47%-53% Passing Accuracy 62%-80% Possession 33%-67%

FT Stats West Ham v Arsenal Shots 9-21 On target 3-11 Fouls 9-8 Duels Won % 45%-55% Passing Accuracy 67%-85% Possession 30%-70%
As you can see, Arsenal utterly dominated play in the first half (for example, Fabregas had more first-half touches than the whole of West Ham's midfield), and if anything they ramped that up in the second. This may have in part been related to last year - in this same fixture Arsenal led 2-0 at the half, like this year, but they allowed two in the second half to end up drawing. Arsene Wenger said after the game that last year came up in the halftime team talk - in fact, he said that Cesc was the one to bring it up - and they avoided a repeat of that debacle.

Beyond everything else they were able to keep from overreacting. After a few lackluster games in a row, Arsenal could have freaked out and overplayed. They didn't do that - they kept calm and played their game, and it led to domination. That was important, because it shows the maturity that Wenger talks about in the above video. It's maturity that Arsenal has lacked in recent years, with a young team and poor veteran leadership for the most part (I'm looking at you, William Gallas). And it's maturity that will lead them to the title, if they get there.

The domination would not have mattered if not for the games that Robin van Persie and Theo Walcott. They combined for all three Arsenal goals:
1. Walcott low cross into box, dummied by Nasri and received by van Persie, shot for a goal.

2. Clichy breaks offside trap with pass to van Persie, who dribbles to end line and passes into box to Walcott, who bangs it home.

3. Walcott takes ball into box and is fouled by Wayne Bridge (who played a part in all three goals as well); van Persie converts the penalty.

Both players are coming off injuries earlier this year. Walcott was in incredible form before the injury, and is only just now starting to find it again. Everyone knows van Persie is insanely talented, but he's frequently injured and as such has found it hard to influence proceedings as much as he should. If both can get healthy and start producing (particularly van Persie), Arsenal will become a much more dangerous team on the offensive end.

All in all, a good return to form for Arsenal - an important performance and result both in the Premier League campaign and before the FA Cup replay this week.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

MLS is trending

The MLS Superdraft was this morning, and I actually watched ESPN2's coverage. This is pretty big for me, considering less than a year ago I was strongly opposed to following the league at all. I got into football as an Arsenal fan (if you read this blog regularly, you probably know that already), and after watching Premier League and Champions League football, the game in the MLS looked like that of a U7 league. You don't often see stuff like this, or this, and definitely not this, in MLS. Basically I was spoiled by the awesome level of football in Europe and I didn't see any point in bothering with MLS.

I have since changed my mind. Sure, the football being played in MLS is, for the most part, awful. That's okay though, because if you watch it you have to do so in mind of the fact that as a football-playing nation, the United States is decades behind the rest of the world. In England, the Football League First Division formed in 1888, and "became" the Premier League in 1992. The MLS was formed in 1993 and first played in 1996. The United States didn't have a top-flight football league from 1984, when the NASL folded, to 1996. So I think we can be excused for having a sub-par league (which, by the way, is improving, but that's a conversation for another day).

The realization that I had was that my complaining about MLS being awful wasn't going to help it stop being awful. While most of the time I don't support bad products, the way to improve football in the United States is to help the game grow, and if fans of the game avoid the league that's never going to happen. So I'm in, MLS.

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Anyway, I watched the draft mainly because I was curious about where IU's Will Bruin would end up, and was hoping to see him drafted by one of the teams I "follow" (namely the Chicago Fire and Portland Timbers FC). In case you're wondering, he went to Houston Dynamo, which mildly upset me.

But I noticed something during the draft (I refuse to refer to it as SuperDraft, as that is a stupid name) that surprised me. I was on Twitter, keeping up with the various Fire and Timbers tweets, and I noticed the trending topics. They included #mlssuperdraft, Omar Salgado, and other related stuff. Four of the ten worldwide trending topics at one point were directly related to the MLS draft.

Now I know that's not a huge thing, but it's far more than I expected. I was pretty sure that I was the only person in the country and probably one of five in the world who cared even a little about the MLS draft, much less actually watched it. Evidently I was wrong. This will not, in one fell swoop, make football in America popular. But it seems to show that not only are people here interested in the game, but people here and around the world are actually at least briefly interested in our domestic league. And that can only help things.

Final thought: I occasionally have arguments with people over whether or not football will ever catch on as a major sport in the United States. My stance is that while it will likely never be as popular as the NFL (actually, almost definitely not), it can become a fully mainstream sport at least at the level of the NHL, and maybe higher. A lot of people disagree, and that's fair. Many of them will likely dismiss this as nothing, and that's fair too - I totally disagree, but I'd be loathe to put too much stock into Twitter trending topics, to be honest.

But watch this. It's from a Timbers match last year, when they were still in the second tier of American football. When we have lower level teams with this kind of support, I have a lot of faith in the possibilities of American football growth.

This game can thrive here; whether it will or not is another question.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Ipswich 1-0 Arsenal (Carling Cup): This is why I don't gamble

Yesterday I placed a very minor wager on the outcome of today's Carling Cup semifinal first leg. I bet on Arsenal to win the match, and I bet on the under (with a line set at three total goals). Well, at least I won half of it.

Arsenal played a lackluster match to say the least, and they were not able to escape the deserved result as Ipswich struck again and again on the counterattack and finally were able to score a late breakthrough. Arsenal now will have more work to do in the second leg than they would have preferred.

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The result of the game didn't stem from unfair play by Ipswich or a howler by any of the Arsenal players, and that's what makes it most worrisome. Arsenal lost because, for the most part, they didn't really try. They took the opponent lightly and did not put in the effort necessary to come away with the result. I don't understand why this team does this again and again when there's plenty of evidence to show that doing that leads to a bad end. All they have to do is look at 2-3 West Brom, or 0-1 Newcastle, or any of several other matches. When they bring effort, like they did against Chelsea, they win. When they don't, this happens.

My biggest worry is the fact that the lack of effort appears to me to be centered around certain players, who again and again are given chances to prove themselves, and again and again they fail to do so in fairly spectacular fashion. Nicklas Bendtner has been vocal in the past about wanting more opportunities, but at the moment he's the third-best striker at the club, and that's in a system that plays one striker (and I'm leaving Theo Walcott out, as he plays on the wing almost exclusively at the moment). Andrei Arshavin has been a wizard in the past both in scoring and creating goals, and he's one of the most talented players in the side. But in this game and in the recent past, neither player has impressed in any way.

I can excuse not playing well - sometimes a player is unlucky and just can't come through. But those two players in particular were without any sort of influence at all. They weren't really bad, they were just invisible. When you have players who are out of form with superior talent ahead of them, you would think that when given the chance to play - especially against Championship-level competition - they would make some kind of effort. We had too many players today who did not.

There's really not a lot to be said about this aside from that. Fabregas and Walcott didn't have particularly good games, but they at least were making visible efforts. Sczcesny played relatively well, though he didn't have too many opportunities. Djourou and Gibbs playes well, Koscielny was decent, Eboue was pretty awful. If I think about this much more I may have a stroke, so I'm going to stop here.

Now let us never speak of this again.