It’s Time to Start Dreaming

A spectre is haunting the Premier League – the spectre of Sarrismo.

Next Monday, Jurgen Klopp completes three years of his Liverpool project. This Merseyside team is unrecognisable from the team left behind by Brendan Rodgers. Liverpool have developed their brand of football, quite similar to the fast and gegenpressing style of Klopp’s Dortmund. There has been a gradual and near-complete overhaul of the players to best fit the system. It is an incredible achievement for the German manager; some have called it a revolution.

And revolutions take their time.

Maurizio Sarri is on the verge of completing three months at Stamford Bridge. He too is a manager with a distinctive style of play. He brought from Napoli his high pressing, possession-intensive game and his pivotal midfielder at the Italian club – Jorginho. The rest of the Chelsea side is largely the same as it was under his predecessor, Antonio Conte. The only other additions to the first team are Kovacic (on loan from Real Madrid), and Kepa Arrizabalaga, who replaces Thibaut Courtois in goal.

Yet, this team is unrecognizable from the team that closed last season with a 3-0 defeat at Newcastle. Chelsea switched to a 4-3-3 – no longer playing three at the back. Marcos Alonso moved back to the more defensive left back. David Luiz, out-of-favour under Conte, has become a regular under Sarri. Jorginho is the medium between defence and attack, while N’Golo Kante assumes a position higher up the field. Chelsea have maintained as much as 81% possession in a single game. Gone are the days when we used to sit back and absorb pressure, waiting for breaks.

This Chelsea revolution started the moment Sarri walked in, and the Blues proved that it is sufficiently under way as they held Liverpool to a 1-1 draw on Saturday night. This Premier League game came only three days after Chelsea won at Anfield in the Carabao Cup.

Striking Gold

There were a lot of positives for the West London club, but none shine as bright as Eden Hazard, who scored breath-taking goals in both games. At a time when the only options upfront are the two out-of-form strikers, Olivier Giroud and Alvaro Morata, the best Sarri can do is to play them alternately and hope to luck out. Hazard’s contribution, thus, is crucial for victories as Chelsea continue to struggle to finish chances.

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While this is only a temporary solution, and Sarri might well be looking for another striker come January, it is an effective one. Hazard continues to terrorise defences, and has very recently, been heralded the best player in the world.

On the night, Hazard started an incredible run from his own half, received a pass from Kovacic, easily slipped past Gomez and buried the ball in the far corner, straight across keeper Alisson.

In the second half, Kante, who now is in charge of initiating attacks rather than his old job of breaking them down, demonstrated excellent presence of mind as his quickly took a free kick to set Hazard free on the left flank, with not a defender in sight.

hazard through

Any space relented to the Belgian is dangerous; only an excellent save from Alisson kept Klopp’s men in the game.

Finders Keepers

In an inflated transfer market which places arbitrarily high prices on attacking players, Chelsea and Liverpool broke records this summer with the highest fees paid for goalkeepers. The Blues bought Kepa from Athletic Bilbao for 71 million pounds, while the Reds paid Roma 65 million pounds for Alisson Becker.

Spending on the right goalkeeper is quite an investment. These are players that necessarily have high impact and stay at the club for long periods, and yield dividends very fast. Both Kepa and Alisson got their share of world class saves on Saturday.

kepa

#CentreBackGoals

In the 60th minute, a pass from N’Golo Kante put Willian through on goal but he was quickly and cleanly narrowed down by the excellent partnership of Virgil van Dijk and Joe Gomez.

At the other end, Antonio Rudiger and David Luiz made one goal line clearance apiece, in either half.

rudiger

Luiz is yet to convince much of the Chelsea support, who view him as reckless and prone to mistakes, but he has the faith of Maurizio Sarri, who like initiating attacks from the defence. The Brazilian’s ball-playing abilities came into the spotlight on two occasions on the day. Eden Hazard’s goal, in fact, originated with a pass from Luiz to Jorginho. Prior to that, in the 22nd minute, he put in a ball over all the outfield Liverpool players, straight to Willian on the right flank, forcing a fine block by Alisson.

Luiz paa

These Spaniards…

Marcos Alonso was voted left back in the PFA Team of the Year in 2017-18. This raised a few eyebrows because he played as a wing-back then and wasn’t fantastic defensively, as defenders are expected to be.

The same eyebrows were again raised when Sarri switched to four at the back and placed the Spaniard at left back. He has had major defensive lapses this season because he is prone to moving forward and not tracking back fast enough. However, he has gained trust due to his attacking contributions – he puts in crosses, assists and even scores often. Against Liverpool, he was troubled to some extent by Mohamed Salah, but did not commit any significant errors.

A new aspect to Alonso’s game that has surfaced is one touch passing. On several occasions in the first half, he increased the pace by changing the direction of the ball and finding the best-placed teammate with a single touch.

You can take the Spaniard to England, but you can’t make him stop playing Spanish. Games to come will show to what extent this skill will be serving Chelsea.

At the final whistle…

Liverpool have arguably been the first side this season to play Chelsea at Chelsea’s level. They maintained about half the possession and created about the same number of chances. They could have gone back with all three points had they not been wasteful in front of goal. Former Chelsea man Daniel Sturridge eventually came off the bench to equalise for the visitors with a curler from 25 yards out, at the very end of the game.

The score line, then, is a fair reflection of the events of the 90 minutes.

However, it speaks greater volumes about the past three months, and just how powerful the philosophy and the methodology of the new Chelsea manager is. His side can make a full-strength Liverpool team battle for a single point.

Imagine the possibilities in three years.

A spectre is haunting the Premier League – the spectre of Sarrismo.

 

 

In Defence of Data

Football folk are defensive in the face of too many statistics that don’t fit the story. I don’t blame them. The riches of a lifelong football fan are mostly all anecdotal.

In one of their worst seasons and with an interim manager at the helm, Chelsea fought the toughest teams in Europe and won the Champions League. Their captain was sent off at Camp Nou, but they won against all odds. What happened in Moscow happened again in Munich. It was the grit and determination of the Old Guard, led by club legend Roberto di Matteo.

When Man City lifted the top division trophy again after 50 years, the lifelong Mancunian was still singing Hey Jude, a chart topper when they last won.

We live for this sort of narrative, for the thrill it induces when the memory is recalled at a pub.

Anecdotes, however, do not usually have statistical significance. The beachball that deflected the ball into the net for Sunderland is not likely to surface at many other games and most certainly cannot be considered a dependable striker at the Stadium of Light, nor a defensive weakness for Liverpool.

The numbers are not trying to take the game away from you, the fan. The numbers cannot predict that Leicester will shine unexpectedly in the season after their promotion. The numbers cannot tell you that Aguero will beat their local rivals to the title in the 93rd minute of the very last game.

 

These are what Nassim Nicholas Taleb, a renowned sceptical empiricist (some call him a statistician), calls Black Swan events. They are characterized by the following three features:

  1. They are unpredictable
  2. They have a large and far reaching impact.
  3. They are usually rationalised with the benefit of retrospect. We would credit Leicester’s win to Ranieri’s brilliant transfer policy over the summer. We would explain Chelsea’s 2012 Champions League win with di Matteo’s defensive setup.

If Black Swan events were predictable, they would either not happen or they would not have the same sort of impact.

Consider Terry’s penalty miss in 2008 in Moscow. If we could predict that he was going to slip, he would probably insist on not taking the penalty and the event would never have taken place.

On the other hand, consider Leicester’s title win. If we knew it was coming, plenty of investors would have put in money at the club and then it would hardly be surprising that they won.

The point being, the thrilling narratives of sport, the ones we live for, cannot be predicted.

 

So why do we need the statistics, you ask. We need the statistics to understand the game better. To understand if Arsene Wenger’s trophy drought in the aftermath of a stadium construction was justified. We need them to get an idea of what skills truly count on the pitch and what is the best way to make the most of limited resources at the disposal of football clubs. It is to understand what is evidence of squad-rebuilding and what is just white noise.

“He really should have scored that” is a statement that can be tested by looking at several hundreds of thousands of situations when players have been in identical situations. It is to lend meaning to our conclusions and test if they are correct. It is to be prepared for Black Swans, without knowing if they will happen and what shape they will take if they do.

All this sounds great, but how are we going to do that? Follow this space as I elaborate in the following posts.