Wednesday, 12 August 2015

Football League Tonight needs more football

A new football league season and a new show for the Saturday night highlights.
First Channel 5 deserve massive congratulations for putting the Football League Tonight show on at 9pm prime time to run up before Match of the Day, rather than the later night slot which BBC used.
It shows a commitment to using the highlights as a prime bit of TV coverage.

Unfortunately that’s pretty much where the praise ends I’m afraid.
Clearly the producers have decided that they need to make the show an entertainment spectacle as well as a football one – and that is its greatest error.
Yes, this was the first episode and like the first week of the new football season it takes a while for things to bed down.
But putting together a football highlights show should, in theory, be pretty easy – put as much football as possible on show and get out of the way.

If you are going to build something around the action then make it insightful, whatever it is: background research, tactical analysis, good quality player or manager interviews etc. Something more than just generic clich├ęs.
Sadly, Channel 5 failed to do this.

The studio audience concept is always a risky one to attempt and this one failed pretty damn well.
If you’re going to have an audience then be prepared to use them and use them well. The best example I’ve seen of this recently was on BT Sport’s Rugby Tonight programme. I haven’t watched it in a while, but last time I saw it they got the audience involved in practical demonstrations, asked them intelligent questions (unsurprisingly getting intelligent answers as a result) and gave them a real purpose for being there. The Football League Tonight audience may as well not have been there how little it was used and how poorly coordinated it was – no microphones available for answering the few generic questions that were posed was a particular highlight.

Bringing in Barnet manager Martin Allen to talk about his team’s first game back in the football league was a good move.
Again, sadly he was rather thrown to the wolves with no preparation time and not having seen the highlights before being asked to commentate on them – poor all around.
You genuinely felt sorry for the guy who was trying his best but just had no support in the studio.

So having talked about the show, what about the football.
Well, the approach to splitting up the highlights from all around the leagues seemed confusing and disjointed at best and downright idiotic at worst.
I’m all for giving bigger exposure to the lower leagues, but again, doing it in a way that seemed to have a little more thought or structure put in to it would go down better – maybe changing the order of the highlights each week would work?

If the show is going to be an hour long, then how about a main game from each division? Five-to-ten minutes of highlights for each of those three games would give plenty of time for the rest of the highlights and other discussions.

There seemed little awareness about another major story which played out in injury time of the Doncaster vs Bury match which saw Jamie Forrester accidentally score for the home side when returning the ball after an injury.
After some form of scuffle the football gods were eased by Bury walking the ball in to the net for the unopposed equaliser.
The incident has been viewed one million times and while that shouldn't be the judge of every news worthy event, it's a pretty good start.
But aside from referencing Forrester's tweet apologising, no further  mention was made - no interview with one of the managers or Forrester himself. Nothing.

The final damning and rather bizarre error came with the very last set of highlights.
This included the Birmingham vs Reading game where Reading had a potential equaliser disallowed after a shot hit the crossbar, bounced down and out.
At first (blurry) glance it appeared the ball may have crossed the line, but it was difficult to say.
On returning to the studio the first words we heard were from George Riley saying: “It looked in, that Reading goal.”
Kelly Caites replied: “I’m going to have to see it again.”
Which prompted Riley to add: “We’ll watch it later.”
"NOOOOOOOOOO!" I (and I suspect hundreds of thousands of other fans) screamed.
This is the whole point of a football highlights show. You’re the ones with control of the footage, show it again.
Can you imagine the Match of the Day or Sky Sports crew just passing over a major incident like that?

To be honest, there really is no competition to Sky Sports News’ Goals Express for football league highlights right now.
Channel 5 could learn from that by just sticking to the football.

Friday, 7 August 2015

Cardiff City season preview 2015-16: A defence of Whittingham and Le Fondre

A messy start

Last season was a bit of a mess for Cardiff.
This time last year the club was still in the midst of the colour change debacle while Ole Gunnar Solskjar was bringing in half of Europe to play.
And there was of course the aftershock of a pretty awful solitary Premier League season.
Using shot statistics to explain Cardiff progress last season is actually reasonably straight forward.

For those not familiar with shot share measures, they are a pretty good indicator of which teams are most likely to be successful over the longer term (ie a full season). While individual games can have significant variations and “luck”, being able to consistently outshoot your opponents is a good predictor for future success.

As an indication of this, in last season’s Championship five of the top six total shot share teams (this includes all shots which are blocked, miss the target, are saved or scored) finished in the top six places.
And using only shots on target (shots which were either saved or scored), all the top six performers in this category finished in the top six of the table.
The league average for both these measurements is 50% - for every one shot you take, your opponent takes one.

OGS’s team started the season with a curious split in shot metrics.
Solskjar had a truly awful overall 39.5% shot share (ie of every 100 shots taken in games played, Cardiff took 39.5, and the opponents took 60.5).
But the shots on target share was a good looking 52.9% (this time, for every 100 shots on target taken in games played, Cardiff took 52.9, but only faced 47.1).
But that difference was not sustainable and it was a falling shots on target share which saw results slide quickly and soon after prompted OGS’ departure just seven games into the season.

Russell Slade eventually took over and with some pretty average football righted the ship, at least taking it to mediocrity with a league average 49.9% shot share during his 37 games in charge.
So while it was not pretty, Slade at least got the job done, to a certain degree.

Slade’s tactics got Cardiff taking 12.91 shots per game – a noticeable improvement from OGS’ 10.43 mark but still only more than Wigan, Blackpool, Leeds and Charlton. However he also cut the shots conceded substantially, from 16 under the Norwegian to just 12.97.

That one statistic alone shows how poor Solskjar’s defensive planning was – a competent lower league manager came in and knocked four shots off the total conceded per game.
The shots on target share settled at 48.4% over Slade’s time too – below average but not hideous.

The chart below shows the cumulative total to that point in the season of three key shot metrics - shot share, shots on target share, and PDO. PDO is a strange beast, but can be used as an approximation to natural variance and/or "luck". Sure OGS got killed by a massive PDO slump finishing at game number seven (his last) but this just emphasised the falling other metrics.

So if these numbers stay true to form for the coming term then it looks like another season of mid-table mediocrity for the Bluebirds, unless some special players can drag the team forward.

Pondering Le Fondre

Speaking of which, player management has been questionable in many respects, particularly up front.
Adam Le Fondre was brought in with much fanfare, played out of position, given poor service, substituted, slagged off and then sent on loan to Bolton – where put in the right position he succeeded.

Indeed, in 23 appearances totaling 1,640 mins with Cardiff (an average of 71 mins per appearance) Le Fondre took just 1.6 shots per game – with only 1.2 coming inside the 18 yard box. In contrast, at Bolton in 17 appearances totaling 1,414 mins (average of 83 mins per game) he basically doubled his output to 3.1 shots per game with 2.2 coming from the area.

Perhaps unsurprisingly his non-penalty goals scored went from 0.1/90 at Cardiff to 0.4/90 – on par with Callum Wilson, Troy Deeney and others in the top twenty Championship forwards. So hence, in all their wisdom Cardiff have sent Le Fondre back on loan for the season – this time to Wolves.

Something I missed in my first draft of this post was Le Fondre’s non-shooting contribution. In his time at Cardiff he also contributed 1.3 key passes per 90 – good for fourth best at the club last season.

So even though he was largely played out of position, Le Fondre was still creating chances and generally being a positive influence. Unsurprisingly this number dropped at Bolton when he was the one on the end of the key passes, taking the shots and scoring the goals.

Key players

More encouragingly Slade seems ready to give Joe Mason a decent run in the side. At 24 Mason should now be ready to make his mark and has had a good pre-season.

Over the last two seasons in limited minutes split between Cardiff and loan spells at Bolton (again) he’s hovered around 2.2-2.6 shots/90, with around 2/90 from inside the area. He averaged 0.5 NPG/90 in 1,016 minutes at Bolton in 2013/14 and 0.4 NPG/90 in 852 mins with the Trotters last season.

I wonder what a Le Fondre-Mason strike force could do for a well organised Cardiff attack?

In terms of those players who played at least 1,000 league minutes at the club last season, it was Anthony Pilkington who led the way with 2.8 shots/90, although 1.6/90 came from outside the 18 yard box. Kenwynne Jones (2.4/90), Craig Noone (2.2/90), Eoin Doyle (2.1/90) and the aforementioned Le Fondre rounded out the top five.

Let’s talk about Whitts

For some reason Peter Whittingham is one of the most controversial figures at Cardiff City. As far as his attacking, creative play goes I cannot see why.

Yes, we’d all love a Yaya Toure in his prime: tackling everything that moves, playing killer throughballs and scoring stunning free kicks. But this is the Championship and those players generally are not here.
But Peter Whittingham is - and we should be thankful for him.

Last season Whittingham led Cardiff in key passes by a country mile – creating opportunities at a rate of 2.2/90 minutes. (Second place went to Noone with 1.6/90. That combined with his shot numbers underlines Noone’s importance to the team.)

As might be expected Whittingham’s key pass rate was an improvement on the previous season in the Premier League (1.8/90).
But so was his tackles per 90 (1.7 vs 1.3).

Indeed of all the defensive metrics available only clearances (1.5 vs 2.3) dropped from the Premier League season, and that is likely due to Cardiff not being hemmed in their own end for the vast majority of play.

Perhaps the other notable statistic is that Whittingham took fewer shots last season (1.2/90) compared to the top division (1.6/90). Was this a trade-off reflecting a different on-pitch role – playing more key passes setting up others rather than taking shots?

Whitts’ key pass rate was also the 19th best in the division – not a bad showing at all especially as Wes Hoolahan (33) and Craig Conway (30) were the only other over 30 years old players to crack that list.

It is hard to explain why Whittingham is such a divisive player in the stands, but the numbers on the pitch tell a very different story.

Here's hoping for a less eventful but more successful season than the last one.