Settled central defence is more important than the Beane counters
The Weekend Dossier
Tucked neatly in the black bag Damien Comolli carried away from Liverpool's training ground on Thursday will have been a small laptop and a mountain of statistics. With his departure, and a fairly brutal appraisal from chairman Tom Werner that he was not good enough, a door was closed, at least for now, on the sabermetric revolution and a brave new world the Moneyball followers had promised.
For baseball at least, Billy Beane and his desire to turn sporting analysis on its head ushered in a different way of reading the game. Old scouts who looked for quick players were usurped by the computer geeks and their love of number-crunching, finding the anomaly and giving the poorer team (in his case the Oakland Athletics) a run at upsetting the big boys. David (Beane) in this case was 6ft 4in and Goliath (baseball) was a game buried in a welter of stops, starts and stats. It was a more natural fit, but Beane (a friend of Arsène Wenger and Sam Allardyce) and Comolli (a disciple of Beane) were eager to translate their numbers and new stats to football (the statistical Holy Grail).
It is not correct to paint Comolli as some kind of lone zealot at this point. Manchester City lead the way in player analysis, both for their own players (right down to youth team level) and in terms of checking up on potential signings, and Chelsea are not far behind. Bolton filled their team under Allardyce with players they had recognised as bargains before anyone else and finished seventh.
There has never been a suggestion that Comolli bought players on his own – and Kenny Dalglish again reaffirmed his position as the man who made decisions in the aftermath of his departure – but Beane let slip that Luis Suarez had superb metrics and Charlie Adam, Stewart Downing and Jordan Henderson were three of the top 12 players last season for creating goalscoring opportunities.
I raised the problem last week that those three all took corners and free-kicks for their club sides last season and thus something would have to give when they played together. No one thought it would be their form and confidence in such spectacular fashion, however. The point is that there is a race to find what statistics matter. In vogue now is the pass completion percentage: to have Swansea players alongside those of Barcelona in terms of how well they can pass a football is hugely pleasing. Like Swansea, with the ball, it will pass.
The Moneyball men want the ultimate stat, the one that can tell you how important a player is from a pile of data, rather than a pile of anecdotes. Thus far it eludes them, and Comolli's removal will set their mission back no end.
We live in a period in our game like no other in terms of the involvement of science, be it in nutrition, game analysis, player analysis, opposition analysis, recovery methods, tactical awareness, physical preparation, mental preparation, you name it, and every club is doing it; every club is striving for another per cent that, will, basically, keep them in jobs.
Yet sometimes the answers lie in simplicity, and in football some of those old-fashioned beliefs really can't be knocked down by a bright fellow with a flashy laptop.
The spine of your team is one. Get that sorted and you have a chance; but for today the concentration is on those good old-fashioned beasts called centre-halves, and in that is a major reason as to why Manchester City might have lost the Premier League title – and also why Tottenham are having a huge bout of the heebie-jeebies as to how a campaign that had them dreaming of the title might just end up without even a Champions League place.
What has proved vital to Manchester United once more, and this is not new (go back to Gary Pallister and Steve Bruce, and more recently Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic) has been the solidity given to their side by having the same central defensive pairing for game after game after game.
Sir Alex Ferguson has been fairly happy to rotate his right-back during the last 10 games, but Ferdinand's partnership with Jonny Evans, in the absence of Vidic through long-term knee injury, has been crucial and immovable. In that 10-game period the champions have won eight times, drawn once and lost once, pocketing 25 points along the way. The period has (and we must still qualify it at this point with the word "potentially") proved crucial in the race for the title. Ferdinand and Evans have played every single one of those 10 games.
The contrast with Manchester City comes in the number of times Vincent Kompany and Joleon Lescott, their current first-choice centre-backs, have been paired together. It is just half of those games. In the same 10-game period, City have won six, drawn two and lost two, picking up 20 points. In short, that period has produced precisely the current five-point swing by which United now lead the race for the title.
The five times Lescott and Kompany have played together in that period have seen City win on four occasions (12 points). Which means, in theory at least, if they had played together for the other five games, and City had won the same amount, there would be just one point in the title race now.
The five games when the pair did not play together (and they each played once without the other) were hugely damaging for City's title charge. From a possible 15 points, they picked up just eight. Losing seven points at this time of the season is a huge giveaway.
Beneath them, Arsenal have struck a golden period of form, outstripping even United with a run of nine victories from their last 10 games, in which Thomas Vermaelen and Laurent Koscielny have played together on eight occasions – although in two of those, Vermaelen started at full-back.
Defensive stability can really not be overlooked. Newcastle went 11 games unbeaten at the start of the season and had the best defence in the country when Fabricio Coloccini and Steven Taylor were paired together. Only when Taylor snapped his Achilles tendon did their assuredness at the back suffer.
For Tottenham, the picture is more complicated because Ledley King and Younes Kaboul have played together seven times in a disastrous 10-game run that has yielded just 10 points and threatens to wreck their season.
But there is now the possibility, backed up by the statistics here, that the days of being able to patch up King without training may be drawing to a close. In the seven games he has played, Spurs have won just once and picked up five points. In the three games he has missed, Spurs have won once and picked up the same number of points. King is clearly no longer the safe fallback option he once was and, in using three different pairings in that period, Harry Redknapp's side have lost their stability, their form, and possibly a Champions League place.
It may not sit too comfortably with the scientists that winning the title is all about your centre-half pairing (and of course there is a lot more to it than this) but if those two men have such a knowledge of each other that each probably knows to which side the other dresses, then it gives you one hell of an advantage.
Defensive pairings: Points in favour
Manchester United (last 10 games, 25pts won)
Chelsea 3-3 (Ferdinand-Evans)
Liverpool 2-1 (Ferdinand-Evans)
Norwich 2-1 (Ferdinand-Evans)
Spurs 3-1 (Ferdinand-Evans)
West Brom 2-0 (Ferdinand-Evans)
Wolves 5-0 (Ferdinand-Evans)
Fulham 1-0 (Ferdinand-Evans)
Blackburn 2-0 (Ferdinand-Evans)
QPR 2-0 (Ferdinand-Evans)
Wigan 0-1 (Ferdinand-Evans)
Manchester City (last 10 games, 20pts won)
Fulham 3-0 (Lescott-Savic)
Aston Villa 1-0 (Kompany-Lescott)
Blackburn 3-0 (Kompany-Lescott)
Bolton 2-0 (Kompany-Lescott)
Swansea 0-1 (Savic-K Touré)
Chelsea 2-1 (K Touré-Richards)
Stoke 1-1 (K Touré-Richards)
Sunderland 3-3 (Kompany-K Touré)
Arsenal 0-1 (Kompany-Lescott)
West Brom 4-0 (Kompany-Lescott)
Arsenal (last 10 games, 27pts won)
Blackburn 7-1 (Vermaelen-Koscielny)
Sunderland 2-1 (Vermaelen-Koscielny)
Spurs 5-2 (Vermaelen-Koscielny)
Liverpool 2-1 (Vermaelen-Koscielny)
Newcastle 2-1 (Vermaelen-Koscielny)
Everton 1-0 (Vermaelen-Koscielny)
Aston Villa 3-0 (Vermaelen-Djourou)
QPR 1-2 (Vermaelen-Koscielny)
Man City 1-0 (Vermaelen-Koscielny)
Wolves 3-0 (Vermaelen-Djourou)
Tottenham Hotspur (last 10 games, 10pts won)
Liverpool 0-0 (Dawson-King)
Newcastle 5-0 (Dawson-King)
Arsenal 2-5 (Kaboul-King)
Manchester City 1-3 (Kaboul-King)
Everton 0-1 (Kaboul-King)
Stoke 1-1 (Kaboul-King)
Chelsea 0-0 (Kaboul-Gallas)
Swansea 3-1 (Kaboul-Gallas)
Sunderland 0-0 (Kaboul-Gallas)
Norwich 1-2 (Kaboul-King)
1 Seeing red over lack of action on frivolous appeals
The FA introduced a deterrent system supposedly to stop frivolous appeals, which was meant to prevent teams taking the you know what. Therefore, can someone answer how Liverpool and Chelsea did not lose Alexander Doni and Branislav Ivanovic for a further game respectively after their ridiculous appeals were turned down?
2 Cissé's curried goat should give teams food for thought
There was much mirth when Papiss Cissé revealed he had been fed curried goat at Newcastle's training ground, but it has been one of a number of themed days for varying nationalities this season and helps explain why Alan Pardew and his staff have united the dressing room.
3 Real story over racism fine is that we are not surprised
The most depressing part about Uefa fining Manchester City £8,000 more for being late on to the field of play (by a minute) than it fined Porto for being followed by some racist fans was that we were not at all surprised.
4 Loan star Benayoun just shows how lines are blurred
The blurring of lines by the excessive loaning of players in the Premier League is highlighted by Yossi Benayoun's recent comments that he wanted Arsenal to finish third in the league and Chelsea (his parent club) to finish fourth.
5 Nerves of steel needed to follow the Blades and Owls
Keep an eye on League One where those in Sheffield currently require nerves of steel. Two points separate United (second) and Wednesday (third) with four games to go and seemingly just one promotion place up for grabs. It is hard to imagine the despair (despite the fallback of the play-offs) for the Sheffield team who finishes third.
This weekend's team news...
Norwich v Man City
Odds Home 5-1; Draw 16-5; Away 8-15.
Kick-off Today, 12.45pm (Sky Sports 2; Highlights BBC1 10.20pm)
Team news Zak Whitbread again misses out for Norwich with a calf problem, although Kyle Naughton is available again. James Vaughan (hamstring) is close to a return. Manchester City will give midfielder Yaya Touré (knee) a late test, while Mario Balotelli remains suspended after his red card against Arsenal last weekend.
Sunderland v Wolves
Odds Home 1-2; Draw 16-5; Away 11-2.
Kick-off Today, 3pm (Highlights BBC 1, 10.20pm)
Team news Martin O'Neill retains hope of having John O'Shea (calf), Nicklas Bendtner (back & hamstring) and Fraizer Campbell (knee) available after the trio missed Mon-day's defeat at Everton. Phil Bardsley (groin) and Lee Catter-mole (knee) are doubts. Wolves miss the banned Sebastién Bassong, while Dave Edwards (hamstring) is a doubt.
Swansea v Blackburn
Odds Home 10-11; Draw 5-2; Away 3-1.
Kick-off Today, 3pm (Highlights BBC 1, 10.20pm)
Team news Swansea may make changes from Wednesday's defeat at Queen's Park Rangers, with Alan Tate and Nathan Dyer in contention for recalls to the starting line-up. Blackburn manager Steve Kean has doubts over Bradley Orr (Achilles) and Martin Olsson (groin), while Anthony Modeste is available after having his three-match suspension reduced to a single game.
West Bromwich v QPR
Odds Home 11-10; Draw 12-5; Away 5-2.
Kick-off Today, 3pm (Highlights BBC 1, 10.20pm)
Team news West Bromwich Albion expect to have Chris Brunt and Liam Ridgewell (both knee) available, with Marc-Antoine Fortuné and Peter Odemwingie likely to return. Shaun Derry is available for QPR after serving a one-match suspension for his red card at Manchester United last week, but strikers Jamie Mackie and Bobby Zamora are both doubtful, while Djibril Cissé remains banned.
Man United v Aston Villa
Odds Home 2-9; Draw 11-2; Away 12-1.
Kick-off Tomorrow, 4pm (Sky Sports 1; Highlights BBC 2, 10pm)
Team news Paul Scholes will be recalled to the Manchester United side after missing Wednesday's defeat at Wigan, while Sir Alex Ferguson has no fresh injury problems. Aston Villa await updates on the fitness of Chris Herd (head) and Stephen Warnock (ankle), with Charles N'Zogbia and Gary Gardner in contention to step in. Midfielder Marc Albrighton (thigh) is nearing a return.
Arsenal v Wigan
Odds Home 1-4; Draw 5-1; Away 11-1.
Kick-off Monday, 8pm (Sky Sports 1; Highlights Sky Sports 1, Tuesday 1am)
Team news Kieran Gibbs has a chance of returning from a groin injury for Arsenal, with Gervinho (ankle) also in contention and Abou Diaby and Francis Coquelin (both hamstring) nearing returns. Laurent Koscielny remains suspended. Hugo Rodallega is Wigan manager Roberto Martinez's only concern, the forward having only recently returned to training after a month out with a knee injury.
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