Why the English FA Needs to Review Incidents

This weekend saw Suarez bite Ivanovic on the arm, an action he has apologised for without providing any explanation for what possesses any rational human being to bite another. It is widely accepted that he will receive a lengthy ban once the FA review video evidence – that is, unless an official tells the FA that they saw the bite, in which case the FA will declare that they can take no further action and Suarez will go unpunished. It is this that allowed Jermain Defoe to escape a ban for a similar bite, and more recently prevented Callum McManaman being punished for an awful challenge on Massadio Haidara.

The FA’s Position

The FA claims that it is unable to review incidents which the match officials have already made a decision on, due to a rule put in place to prevent undermining the authority of referees by “re-refereeing” matches. It can only review incidents which are not seen by the officials.

Why the FA’s Position is Nonsensical

Firstly, and most obviously, claiming that you are unable to take action because of a rule that you invented and have the power to amend is obviously ridiculous. There is no FIFA regulation at work here that the FA is required to abide by, it is their own decision that they are claiming to be restricted by.

Regardless of who made this rule, it is still easy to show that it is contradictory. One half of the rule claims that referees are perfect decision making machines – that if an official sees an incident, he or she will make the correct decision in 100% of cases. It’s incredibly simple to disprove this theory:

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An assistant referee saw this incident and deemed it a perfectly legitimate tackle.

My argument is, if a Premier League official sees the above incident and decides that it is a legal challenge, not reckless or dangerous, and that play should continue, then that official is not fit to work in the Premier League (or indeed at any level of football) until an urgent and thorough re-education is completed. The FA’s “rule” as it stands not only accepts the above decision, but actively protects the official in question.

The FA’s position is contradictory because it allows for the fact that officials may not see an incident at all. On the one hand we are told that referees are perfect decision making machines, and on the other we are told they can’t be trusted to be looking in the right direction. This doesn’t make sense. Either you go completely in the direction of trusting referees and having no reviews, or you admit that three (or five) human officials are not able to see and make perfect decisions on every event on a football pitch, and those 40-odd high-definition and ultramotion cameras that Sky Sports bring to each match might offer some more conclusive evidence.

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An official saw this and deemed it worthy of only a yellow card.

How to Fix it

I’m not asking the FA to undermine the authority of officials. 99.9% of decisions made can remain in the hands of the referee, and we can continue to moan about offside calls in full acceptance of the human element of those decisions. I’m asking for the 0.1% – the biting, the career-threatening fouls – to be reviewed and given the punishment they deserve, regardless of what the officials on the day may or may not have seen at full speed from 40 yards. It is not bringing the game into disrepute or undermining the officials to see such obviously disgraceful acts receive the punishment they deserve – on the contrary, it undermines both the authority of the officials and the credibility of the FA for these players to escape punishment.

Chelsea 2-1 Arsenal – Match Analysis

Lineups

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Analysis

Arsenal are used to dominating the midfield, with three players able to play intricate football and rotate between positions dynamically as needed. This was true for the Fabregas-Wilshere-Song set up, and has continued into the Cazorla-Wilshere-Arteta combination. However, that unit has been broken up due to Arteta’s injury, and with both Podolski and Oxlade-Chamberlain missing through illness, Cazorla was shifted out to the left where he is much less effective. Coquelin and Diaby were brought in, and Wilshere was pushed forward as the only one of the three able to provide any creativity. Instead of a fluid three able to rotate, this became a rigid two-plus-one configuration.

Chelsea were able to exploit this when Mata, Oscar and Hazard moved into the area in front of the defence which Coquelin and Diaby were protecting:

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In the above image, Arsenal are set up well, with the two players in front of the back four, Cazorla mindful of Azpilicueta and Walcott watching Cole. They’d be happy for Lampard and Ramirez to pass it back and forth along the halfway line all day long. Mata moves to the right to show for the ball, and Hazard moves across as well. This motion drags Coquelin and Diaby out of their shielding positions as they follow their men:

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It really shouldn’t be that simple to completely remove a layer of protection from the Arsenal defence. As the ball is played into Hazard, Oscar is left to walk into the space in front of the back four:

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The ball is laid off to Lampard and he had a simple pass to release Oscar at the Arsenal back four:

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This isn’t tactical genius on Chelsea’s behalf; players will move around to try to find space automatically. Instead, it’s naive, undisciplined defending from Arsenal. Coquelin and Diaby should recognise that protecting their back four is more important than chasing opponents back towards their own goal. Coquelin is young and still learning, but Diaby has been around top level for long enough that he shouldn’t be making mistakes like this. As the more experienced player, he should be telling Coquelin to drop in. At worst, he should stay where he is and accept that Coquelin’s move has temporarily left him with two players to be concerned with. Opting to track one and abandon the other is not a decision a top player should be making. That Chelsea’s penalty came from Diaby dwelling on the ball and losing it in a dangerous area only reinforces the point.

Like-for-Like League Table – Matchday 18

Fixtures come thick and fast over the Christmas period, giving the like-for-like league table an opportunity to change quite rapidly. Here’s the table, with projected final finishing positions:

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Swansea’s home draw against Manchester United sees them gain a point over last season’s result. The two points dropped by Manchester United compared to last season’s away win bring them back to within two points of Manchester City at the top of the projected league table. Chelsea climb much closer to the top two on projected points, after turning last season’s 3-1 loss at home to Aston Villa into an 8-0 win, while Aston Villa’s result sees them fall two spots to 14th.

Sunderland’s away win at Southampton gains them three points over the equivalent fixture last season (against Blackburn Rovers, where they lost 2-0) and climb two places to 9th in the table, while Southampton fall one place to 19th. Similarly, West Bromwich Albion and Liverpool both gain three points on last season after turning away wins into home wins over Norwich and Fulham, respectively. Liverpool climb five places in the projected league table thanks to this result, while Norwich fall three spots. Finally, Everton’s away win at West Ham is an improvement of two points over last season’s draw against Wolves, and takes them up into sixth.

Like-for-Like League Table – Matchday 17

The league table never lies

At the end of the season, when every team has played every other team home and away, that may be true. At all other times, the league table lies. Why? Because every team’s fixture list is different. Maybe team 1 has played more matches against the top six than team 2? Maybe more of team 1′s games were at home? There are too many variables for the league table to mean anything until the end of the season. This is why it’s pointless to think about how the season will play out until Easter at the earliest, and any talk of potential champions, top four finishes or relegation scraps should wait until then. Everything prior to that is just football.

So what would make the league table more accurate?

Well, one of two things. Firstly, you could compare teams based on opponents in common. For example, Manchester United and Manchester City have both played at home to Arsenal, Sunderland, QPR and Tottenham, and away at Chelsea, Liverpool and Newcastle so far this season. United have picked up 18 points from those 7 games; City only 15. This works, but once you try to extend it to three or more teams, the number of common opponents falls so quickly that it becomes useless.

Secondly, you could predict how each team is doing based on how they did against the same opponents last season, home and away, and see if they’re doing better or worse, and what that would mean if they continue the trend. So let’s do that:

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What am I looking at?

Last Season Pts is the number of points won by each team in 2011/12. This Season Pts is the points total so far for 2012/13, while Pld is the number of matches played. Points Change shows how many more (or fewer) points each team has, compared to the exact same fixtures last season. For example, Tottenham are 1 point worse off than last season, in terms of like-for-like fixtures played so far in 2012/13. Note that this is not simply comparing their points tally after 17 games, but comparing their results in the actual 17 games they have played, home or away against particular opponents.

So, what about Projected Pts?

If a team is up by a half a dozen points on like-for-like fixtures at the halfway point of the season, then it’s a reasonable assumption that they genuinely are a better team than last season (or some of the other teams are a little bit worse, which is the same thing, relatively speaking). So I project what their final points tally would be by taking their remaining fixtures, looking at their results in those fixtures last season, and assuming that they’ll gain a similar number of points in the second half of the season. The maths is slightly more complicated than that, but that’s the concept.

What about the newly-promoted sides?

Obviously, Reading, Southampton and West Ham didn’t play in the Premier League last season. To allow some sort of comparison to be made, I compare the promoted sides with last season’s relegated teams. This means Reading, Southampton and West Ham are matched with the records of Bolton, Blackburn and Wolves from last season. It isn’t perfect, but it’s the only real option. Promoted sides should be looking for positive Points Change numbers, as that suggests they are doing better than the side they replaced in the league. This is bad news for Reading, as they are eight points behind Bolton’s record in like-for-like fixtures.

So what does it tell me that the normal league table doesn’t?

Chelsea are five points better off than then they were in like-for-like fixtures last season. However, that was ten points before Benitez took over, four Premier League games ago. It certainly puts Chelsea fans’ support for Di Matteo in context, as Chelsea’s league performance was much improved prior to his sacking. Chelsea would have comfortably finished 3rd last season with those additional 10 points, and perhaps Di Matteo may have gained even more, given the chance.

Newcastle’s fall from grace this season is highlighted by them being the biggest losers – 13 points down on last season so far on a like-for-like basis. Swansea have pushed on from last season, already six points better off under Laudrup than last season under Rodgers. Stoke and Aston Villa have also improved markedly.

Arsenal fans should be concerned; they may appear to be only two points off third place in the “normal” league table, but on a like-for-like basis they are already 10 points worse off than last season. The concern is, last season they scored 37 points from these 17 matches, and only 33 points from the 21 matches they have yet to play, suggesting that their remaining fixtures are tougher. Even if they match last season’s results from here on in, they’ll finish on 60 points (only good enough for 7th last season), and after losing 10 points already, who’s to say they won’t lose more? That’s what the like-for-like table suggests – unless Arsenal can improve dramatically, they could be on for a bottom half finish.

Liverpool 0-2 Arsenal

Lineups

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Analysis

Diaby improves but is still outshone: As noted in the analysis of last week’s 0-0 draw at Stoke City, Abou Diaby was the weak link in midfield. His performance improved significantly against Liverpool – enough for Sky Sports to give him their man of the match award – but he was still outshone by his teammates in the Arsenal midfield:

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Indeed, both Arteta and Cazorla should feel aggrieved that they were overlooked for the man of the match award, as they both put in excellent performances; Arteta easily leading the passing stats with 92 attempted at a 95% completion rate, and Cazorla with 90% pass completion, a goal and an assist.

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Arsenal’s team defence: The away side’s 26 tackles and 20 interceptions (at 46, that’s 11 more team takeaways than in last season’s match at Anfield) shows how Arsenal are working to win the ball back when out of possession.

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More interesting is the distribution of the tackling effort: Jenkinson made 4 successful tackles, Gibbs, Arteta, Vermaelen, Mertesacker and Oxlade-Chamberlain made 3 each, and Cazorla, Podolski and Diaby made 2 each. Defending as a team is not something usually attributed to Arsenal, but it is a big factor in them not conceding a goal yet this season.

Liverpool’s metamorphosis will take time: Brendan Rodgers has been brought to Liverpool to implement the approach he enjoyed success with at Swansea, and also to drag Liverpool in the direction that the rest of the Premier League is heading in – away from crosses and long balls towards possession and intricacy (a discussion of Premier League 5 year trends can be found in this article.

However, Rodgers needs time to refresh the playing squad to suit this new style, and the current players need time to adjust to the new approach. This process won’t be easy, or fast; Liverpool under Dalglish played with a target man and two midfielders in Gerrard and Adam who were more interested in Hollywood passes than possession for the sake of the team. An indication of the difficulty in this transformation came from how unsure the Liverpool back five (including Reina) looked when trying to play out from defence. It’s difficult to isolate team passes in a specific part of the field, but as an example, Enrique gave the ball away four times in his own half, despite Arsenal not pressing particularly high up the pitch.

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Conclusions

I noted before the match that Arsenal had taken 40 shots in their two Premier League games, and that they had been impervious to the Stoke set piece threat which was the way Liverpool had scored their goals against Manchester City. In view of that, the odds of 7/2 for an Arsenal win and 10/11 for a Liverpool win seemed enormously divorced from reality. So it proved, Mannone had little to get his gloves dirty for, while two Arsenal new arrivals opened their accounts and Giroud should really have scored a third but skewed wide. Cazorla and Arteta continue to impress hugely, and the defensive improvement cannot be underestimated; Arsenal had conceded 10 goals at this point last season, including 2 to Liverpool.

Liverpool will suffer days like this as Rodgers renovates a side which finished 8th last season, but they will also enjoy matches like last week’s draw against the champions. In short, it will be a volatile season but with the promise of players like Allen and Sterling indicating a brighter future of better football in the medium term.

Stoke City 0-0 Arsenal

Lineups

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Analysis

Apologies Stoke fans, this analysis is focused on the changes at Arsenal this season.

Stoke force Arsenal to kick long: Stoke tried to press Arsenal whenever the away side were in possession, attempting to slow their game down and rush them into losing the ball. While it wasn’t entirely successful – it worked on occasion but Arsenal were able to slip past the close attention frequently too – it did work at the far end of the pitch. By closing down Vito Mannone, they often forced him to kick long, playing into the hands of Stoke as they were more likely to win the aerial battles resulting from these kicks. It may have been Mannone’s first action for Arsenal in quite a while, but his default action when receiving a passback was in marked contrast to Szczesny who plays the ball out to defenders even when under pressure. Mannone also kicked long from goal kicks, which meant Arsenal were less able to build from the back and it’s surprising that Arsene Wenger did not instruct Mannone to make better use of his fullbacks when on the ball.

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Mannone defaults to kicking long, whereas Szczesny plays out to his defence

A weak link in midfield: Abou Diaby has always appeared to be slow on the ball, always seeming to take an extra touch before passing and killing any forward momentum, and this was evident again against Stoke. It’s difficult to quantify this effect with statistics, but what can be quantified is Diaby’s poor pass completion percentage once he did eventually release the ball – perhaps suggesting that his slowness in possession allowed Stoke to regroup?

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Midfield pass completion: Cazorla 93%, Arteta 87%, Diaby 72%

Perhaps Wenger accepted this – with Ramsey and Chamberlain introduced from the bench, Diaby still played the entire match – because he offers something else to the side? Wenger later used Diaby’s name in a list of players he expects goals from, but that is surprising given that Diaby only had one shot in the match, and that was when he received the ball entirely free on the six yard line and took an age (unsurprisingly) to turn and slice the chance wide. Perhaps Diaby’s height was the reason he stayed on? If so, it was ineffective as Diaby was completely dominated in the air by Peter Crouch.

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Diaby lost 11 of his 17 aerial duels, often to Crouch

Perhaps it was another defensive aspect of Diaby’s play which kept him in the side? Well…

Arsenal solid in defence: A second clean sheet in a row for Arsenal, who are supposed to struggle against the aerial bombardment on offer from sides like Stoke. In actual fact, Stoke only managed a single shot on target, despite the Arsenal defence missing Koscielny and Sagna. This comes on the back of only conceding two shots on target against Sunderland last week. Does this suggest a greater emphasis on defence now that Steve Bould has taken over as Wenger’s right hand man?

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Only three shots on target allowed in Arsenal’s first two matches

Arsenal’s defensive frailty in recent times has not been due to the players at the back, but the absence of a desire from the midfield to help out the defence. The most obvious example of this was Rooney’s breakaway goal against Arsenal in January 2010, as he ran past four jogging Arsenal midfielders to tap in a cross unmarked. Since Mikel Arteta’s arrival, Arsenal have had someone prepared to do the midfield dirty work; despite conventional wisdom, Alex Song was never particularly good at – or interested in – playing a protective role.

To illustrate the point, compare Arteta and Song in the two Premier League games against Manchester City last season. Arteta achieved 4 tackles and 11 interceptions to Song’s 2 tackles and 3 interceptions in those two games. A small sample size, sure, but it demonstrates Arteta’s defensive addition to Arsenal. This weekend Arteta helped himself to one more tackle and two additional interceptions over Diaby, again illustrating Diaby’s lack of input to the match.

With another player alongside Arteta who is also minded to play their part defensively (for example Wilshere, who picked up the same number of tackles and two more interceptions than Song in the 2-1 win against Barcelona in 2011) and Arsenal’s security at the back is likely to continue.

Arsenal creating chances, but can’t put them away:

While Arsenal have been keeping clean sheets, they’ve also been allowing their opponents to keep them as well. On the plus side, it’s not as if they aren’t creating chances (40 in 2 games), but on the minus side those chances have been wasted (only 5 on target).

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40 shots, only 5 on target

Is this a cause for concern? In short, no. As Wenger mentioned afterwards, one month ago Giroud, Podolski and Cazorla didn’t know each other, or any of their new teammates, so it’s a little early to be concerned that they haven’t scored; if anything it’s a positive sign that they have been creating so many chances. Also, while the defence is so solid, it gives the attack more time to gel than if Arsenal were shipping a couple of goals per game – as both Manchester clubs have done so far this season. A scrappy goal here or there could be enough to secure three points.

Final Thoughts

Regardless of results, two matches is too early to assess any club in the league. In the same way that there are positives for Arsenal as outlined above, they could simpy be statistical anomalies. While Wenger keeps faith in the likes of Diaby and Djourou it’s hard to argue that they will compete for a league title, but if the squad isn’t taxed too heavily, the first team could be very strong after a couple of months to gel.