Sunday, 27 December 2009

The pursuit of adequacy - my analysis of English goalkeepers

    Merry Christmas! I hope you all had a wonderful time, and didn’t let the fact that yesterday’s football was a bit lacklustre spoil the holiday. To be honest, we were subjected to a particularly dire display of Premier League action! As highlighted on Match of the Day last night, it was certainly a day to celebrate the sometimes forgotten art of goalkeeping. In keeping with that, I have been studying the form and stats of some of England’s top keepers.

    If fit, David James seems to be an automatic pick for the squad. Capello rates him not only as a shot-stopper, but seems to relish the invaluable experience that he brings. Let us, for arguments sake, assume that there are therefore two other seats on the plane to South Africa. The contenders I have identified are Robert Green, Paul Robinson, Ben Foster, Chris Kirkland and Joe Hart. I’m going to give a little run down of their credentials, and see who stands out as the natural choices.

    Rob Green is undoubtedly favoured by the England boss, 7 of his 8 caps coming under the Italian. Although this season his statistics look somewhat bleak (3 clean sheets and 35 goals conceded in 19 Premier League appearances), after studying his career you see that to some extent these numbers can be attributed just as much to a West Ham side that leaks goals as to the slightly out of form Green. He keeps a good amount of clean sheets (1 every 2.7 games), and only lets in a goal after an average of 4.87 shots on target. As you will see when we study the competitors, these figures hold the Irons’ stopper in a favourable light.

    Paul Robinson has the unquantifiable advantage of significant international experience. He has 41 caps, more than anyone else on my list, has been to two major tournaments and played every minute of England’s 2006 World Cup campaign. In the Premier League this season he has conceded 33 goals and kept only 5 clean sheets in 19 appearances. However, it is Robinson’s career statistics leave his place in my squad hanging by a thread. He keeps on average a clean sheet every 3.7 games which is by far and away the worst of these goalies. He also only saves an average of 3.55 shots before letting in a goal, which to be honest Paul, might just not be good enough.

    Ben Foster, seemingly 3rd choice for United yet he’s still in with a chance of making the plane to South Africa. He must have displayed some unbelievable skills when he has been on the pitch, I hear you ask. Well, actually Foster’s stats do seem to back up his reputation - he has conceded on average a goal a game this season, but this is as good as anyone on our list. He has also kept three clean sheets in 8 Premier League appearances, which gives him a good ratio. However, if you, like I, have watched Ben Foster this season I am sure you will not be brimming with confidence. His tendancy to buckle in the big games (or even in the Community Shield) leaves a serious question mark over his inclusion in the squad. However, having said that, Capello seems very keen on the young United keeper and so he should not be ruled out. I suppose that his age (26) counts towards him, although the more cynical of us might suggest that the fact he has featured for England is mainly down to his club!

    Chris Kirkland was apparently set for big things when he signed for Liverpool in 2001, and few of us doubt his natural talent as a shot-stopper. However, his unlucky tendency to attract injury at the worst possible times has hampered his career and restricted him to just the one substitute appearance for the three lions. His statistics, sadly for him, seem to confirm what his cap collection suggests - that he was more suited to U21 international football than a World Cup squad. Only 3 clean sheets in 17 appearances this year and a disastrous average rate of a goal after every 3.89 shots on target leave us questioning whether he ever fulfilled his potential.

    Finally, and perhaps most interestingly, is the case for Joe Hart. He has been left until last, as it was his performance yesterday that inspired me to study English goalkeepers. One or two of the saves he made were magnificent, against some of the finer attackers the league has to offer. On loan to Birmingham from Man City, the midlands club are said to be keen to make his deal a permanent one. However, his fine performances will not come as much of a surprise to City fans, who know well that were it not for the acquisition of Shay Given, he could well be first team at Eastlands. Lets quickly run over the vital statistics: By far and away the youngest promising English keeper at only 22, an impressive 7 clean sheets in the League this year (second only to Petr Cech) and a promising rate of 1 goal conceded a game after 18 appearances. Perhaps most crucially, Hart has not yet displayed that most English trait in a keeper, the uncanny ability to buckle under pressure. For a young English goalie to have performed so admirably behind a back four of Carr, Ridgewell, Johnson and Dann should not be ignored by the England boss, especially when the Italian hardly has an embarrassment of riches at his disposal.

    To conclude, I must make an admission. If it was not obvious by now, I have used today’s post to shamelessly forward the case of Joe Hart to be on the plane to South Africa. However, I am an England fan and only suggest what I feel would benefit the team. His stats easily outrank those around him, his age makes a mockery of the inclusion of the error-prone Ben Foster, and he showed us all this weekend how he reacts to the big stage. Capello, take note…

Wednesday, 23 December 2009

Thank God that English football has no Christmas break...

    Christmas time means different things to different people. To some it is about friends, others family, to many drinking, presents or charity. Over-consumption is a popular theme and football is no different to chocolates, mince pies or mulled wine. Between Boxing day and the 3rd of January, we have a staggering fixture list to feast on. 135 games, made up of 20 Premier League matches, 24 in the Championship, 27 in League 1, 32 in League 2 and an extra 32 games with the guaranteed white-knuckle ride that is the 3rd round of the FA cup should leave us all (almost) satisfied. By the 3rd, when the fixture list starts to settle down again, we will all have a much better idea of how our teams seasons are looking. Today I plan to have a little talk about which teams are on a precipice, the fine line between success and failure, and pick out a few for whom this Christmas really is ‘make or break’.

    The temptation to carry on talking about Man City or Liverpool (who could be out of every competition bar the Europa League 3 days into 2010) is massive, but I have decided to resist. Instead, we are going to have a little look a couple of teams who you might not instantly think associate with danger, but for whom a dodgy Christmas could seriously jeopardise very promising starts.

    Lets start in the Premiership, where for me, one of the teams most reliant on coming through Christmas unscathed are Sunderland. Steve Bruce, indisputably an excellent manager, managed to make the Black Cats a tough side to beat for the first month or so of the season. The form of Darren Bent in particular turned the Stadium of Light into a place no-one fancied visiting, and top half clubs like Birmingham City,  Liverpool and Arsenal have lost there, whilst Man Utd couldn’t beat them at Old Trafford. Their upcoming fixtures. a home tie versus Everton, a trip to Ewood Park and non-League Barrow in the FA Cup all look like very winnable games, but Sunderland’s form is abysmal - they have only recorded 1 win since 17th October. This coincides with the absence of influential midfielder Lee Cattermole, who returned on Saturday against Man City in a game that the Black Cats were unlucky to come out of without at least a point. They are sitting in 10th place with 21 points - interestingly the exact same amount as at this stage of last season. That year, they only won 15 more points after Christmas and finished in 16th place, only two clear of relegated Newcastle. In 2010 they must strive to ensure they do not capitulate to the same extent, and this kicks off on Boxing Day against Everton.

    The next side who’s Christmas period I have identified as particularly crucial are Nottingham Forest. 3rd place in the Championship may seem like a dream come true, even for those fans who remember the glory days, but now is the time that Billy Davies’ side must start believing that they deserve to be where they are. Especially as the clubs beneath them, particularly Cardiff, will fancy their chances of picking off the Reds in the second half of the season. This Forest side  are relatively inexperienced in the search for promotion out of the league, only finishing in the Championship play-off positions once since 2000 and securing safety in the latter stages of last season. Therefore, it is crucial for Forest to capitalise away at Watford and at home to Coventry, as Cardiff will be looking for 6 points in games against the bottom two teams in the league. As I previously mentioned, Billy Davies has repeatedly talked down his team this year. However, wins against Boro, Newcastle, Swansea and Preston to name but 4 prove that his side deserve to be where they are. Maybe now is the time for Billy, shrewd man that he is, to start talking up his side and push for an automatic spot rather than risk the lottery of the playoffs.

    Anyway, every football fan in the country will have 3 points on Boxing Day top of the Christmas list. Although the clubs I have picked out find themselves in particular situations, I doubt anyone will be feeling too charitable come kick off on the 26th. Barring any major developments in the football world tomorrow, I will update again on Christmas or Boxing Day- Merry Christmas one and all!

P.S. I thought this made interesting reading, the Daily Mail‘s Premier League “Improvement Table“…

Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Hughes, Mancini and Benitez

So, here begins my first proper post. While this blog is in its embryonic stages, the season is not and my mind and opinion have been spilling over for years. Therefore, I face a uphill struggle to avoid this turning into a stream of ranting and conjecture…I’ll be trying my best. Talking of tough challenges, I am going to kick off today with my thoughts regarding two men experienced in the hardest job in the game.

There is obviously only one place to start. Poor old Mark Hughes, or so the popular feeling seems to be. The Guardian and The Telegraph both today report that new Manchester City manager Roberto Mancini was approached at the beginning of December, although Chief Executive Garry Cook had previously insisted that the decision to axe Hughes was taken after the 3-0 defeat to Spurs.

This is all obviously very embarrassing for the club, and will not help dampen increasing speculation that Mancini is facing a player revolt led by that bastion of compassion and ambassador of goodwill, Craig Bellamy. I, along with it seems the majority of the public, feel a great deal of sympathy for Hughes, who has always struck me as a decent, honest football man. However, I do think that there is a critical dimension to this situation that is being overlooked. Hughes enjoyed unrivalled, almost unprecedented financial backing from the owners. Whilst I am not claiming this means he should be delivering success by December (is this even possible??), in accepting the responsibility that comes with that cheque book he acknowledged that his was a unique situation in world football at the time. My point is, the behaviour of Manchester City may have been disloyal by conventional standards, but surely this is a club not operating within the same norms and values as the other 19? Along with Chelsea, they have set their own benchmark in terms of investment and profile building, why not set a new standard in terms of patience with a manager? Whilst the Premier League happily allow gargantuan levels of investment from initially benevolent foreign owners, no-one is in a position to complain when these powerful shareholders run their clubs how they see fit. And who can deny they might be a tiny bit disgruntled when they realise they have spent £38m on Kolo Toure and Joleon Lescott.

The other man under a noticeable amount of pressure is a certain controversy-courting Spaniard, who‘s side went down to a gutless defeat at Fratton Park on Saturday. Rafa Bentiez’s post match press conference was bewildering and confusing to even the most optimistic Liverpool fan. To those with a more balanced view of the world, both performances at Portsmouth (the players’ for 90 minutes and Rafa’s afterwards) stank of a club in crisis, where the manager is starting to see how precarious his position is, and the threat of losing the dressing room. Benitez has, in my opinion, benefited for a year or so now from the extremely controversial ownership of the club. The unpopularity of Hicks and Gillette is such that amongst the fans, to question Benitez has been to implicitly support the Americans, unacceptable in the eyes of any red. They have united opinion against themselves to such an extent, that their attacks on the manager have led the fans to support him blindly despite his obvious shortfallings. The club cannot afford to sack Benitez, but at the same time they surely cannot afford to give him another transfer window to pursue his skewed policies. The bleakest thing for Liverpool FC, is that to get rid of the manager gives the two clueless owners license to pursue their favoured personnel, and as we have seen before, Klinsmann would not have been a popular choice. I once saw on a banner at Anfield, “If it ain’t broke, don’t HICKS it”. The problem now, is that the club clearly is broke both metaphorically and financially. Whoever’s fault that might be, the team responsible for the clean-up operation are questionable to say the least. For me, I would like to see Rafa walk, and King Kenny pull off his carpet slippers one last time to steer the club until the end of the season.

Thanks for reading, as I say comments and criticisms are openly encouraged, and I leave you with a little reminder why we should all have a soft spot for Roberto Mancini.

Kick off...

Well, this is the start of something I have been meaning to do for a while. My very own chance to wax lyrical about the topics of the day, and in fact, whichever football subject I choose. I have created this blog for all those football fans out there who are just as interested in football debate, obscure statistics, comment and opinion as they are content to wile away a Saturday afternoon sitting in front of Jeff Stelling. To kick off with a cliché, its for those fans who think of that old Shankly line about life and death, and don’t understand what the big deal is- of course it’s more important!

Anyway, now I should say something about myself, although I’ll keep the non-footballing comment short and sweet. I am a 21 year old student, officially studying politics but 99% of the time discussing football. I have a deep, long-standing, passion for the sport at all levels. The Premier League is my bread and butter, but I am keenly interested in, and willing to discuss everything from League 2 to Serie A, and have a long love-affair with Brazilian and Argentinean football. Although I often find myself cursing the often mundane and pedestrian international break, I will be fully taken over by World Cup fever come the minute that last Premiership ball is kicked on Sunday 9th May.

I have only one or two dogmatically held footballing beliefs, and apart from these I am pretty flexible and will try not to overtly sing the praises of my chosen teams. However, lets get these out the way early: My first non-negotiable opinion is that I think it is impossible to comprehensively understand the game without seeing it live. Not necessarily every week, not exclusively live- and any serious fan will not need me to tell them this- but there is no substitute in the game for going to the ground and soaking in the atmosphere, and there is nothing Andy Gray can explain that anyone with an enquiring and analytical mind couldn‘t point out in a second. Anyone who knows football will tell you that you cannot judge a player without watching how he runs off the ball, how he holds himself on the pitch and how he interacts with his teammates. Secondly, I believe that defending is just as beautiful an art form as attacking, and that this is often overlooked by so called “purists”. (Mark Hughes, playing 3 strikers at White Hart Lane might make you feel like a latter-day Carlos Bilardo, but you go and lose 3-0 and its off to the job centre). My final belief, and I hold this most enthusiastically, is that the likes of The Sun and the News of the World have nothing more to offer to the football community than uninteresting, unfounded and unimaginative speculation. If you believe what you read in these wastes of paper, you’re no wiser than Stan Collymore, and that realisation is what led me to write this today.

I hope you all enjoy this, and that you participate when you can be bothered. I would love to receive emails and thoughts, as I am obviously new to this game and will get nowhere without feedback from the public. All the best.