The team around you

Back in 2016, footballer Oscar, then of Chelsea, was bought by Shanghai SIPT for a (then whopping) GBP 60M, with a salary of about GBP 20M a year.

Around the time the deal got announced, we were having our 10th year reunion at IIMB. During that a professor told us that one reason Shanghai had to pay Oscar so heavily was the quality (or lack thereof) of teammates he would have to deal with in Shanghai. He was then playing for Chelsea, who had won the Premier League in 2015, and would win it again that season (2016-17). And he was leaving that quality of teammates to join unknown teammates in China, and that meant he would have to be compensated heavily.

During and after last nights’ Manchester Derby, a friend and I were talking about Andre Onana, now the Manchester United goalie. Onana has been an extremely promising goalkeeper, excelling for Ajax and Inter (apart from one doping ban). He is a brilliant sweeper keeper (one reason he got chucked out of the Cameroon national team during last year’s World Cup), adept at playing with his feet and with great positioning sense.

And who does he have in front of him at ManYoo? The former Leicester defensive pair of Harry Maguire and Jonny Evans! They absolutely lack pace which means they can’t play a high line. That means Onana’s sweeping skills are grossly underutilised, and he ends up getting judged based on his shot-stopping skills, where he is nowhere in the same league as his predecessor David De Gea.

When we get into organisations, things we evaluate are the kind of work we do and what we are getting compensated for it. The thing we tend to overlook is who we need to work with, and whether they will elevate us or drag us down. Sometimes, the organisation (like Shanghai SIPT) recognises that you have to put up with suboptimal colleagues, and thus pay you a premium for your services.

Often, though, the organisation will be more like ManYoo, which doesn’t really recognise that the team around you may not be optimal for your playing style. And not everyone is willing to accept a premium in exchange for suboptimal colleagues. So, if you end up like Onana, you are not only frustrated because of the quality (or lack thereof) of your colleagues and peers, but you also end up getting judged on axes that are not your strengths (and what you have NOT been hired for).

Over the last decade, hiring at Manchester United has been curious, to say the least. There have been half-hearted attempts at changing the playing style, and almost everyone brought in to play the new style (I assume Erik Ten Haag wanted to play a more high-press style when he bought Onana) has been frustrated and unable to perform to potential.

Related to this, going back to something I’d written earlier this year, every company has an optimal rate of attrition, which is non-zero. If you end up paying too much of a premium to loyalty, you risk stagnation. If your Onana has to put up with Maguire and Evans, he won’t perform to potential. And then you go back to setting up the way it is optimal for Maguire and Evans.

Why Mourinho failed at ManYoo

Yesterday, Baada and I decided to try and record one of our recent WhatsApp conversations and release it as a podcast. I was in charge of tech, and I messed up massively. I was using Skype, and for whatever reason, it appears that my phone picked the microphone input from the phone itself and not from the AirPods I was using, so my voice came very faintly. Baada’s voice came well, though.

Leading up to the podcast, both of us had done our homework, so it’s a pity that it didn’t come out well and we can’t release it. The topic of the podcast was what kind of strategy, tactics and formations Jose Mourinho will use at Spurs. As part of our preparation, we had looked at the formations that he had used in each of his previous six clubs (Porto, Chelsea (1), Inter, Real Madrid, Chelsea (2) and Manchester United). There was one clear trend.

There are a number of positions that Mourinho prefers, and we were able to identify players in his first five clubs who occupied that position. And when it came to ManYoo, we drew a blank. This happened repeatedly as we talked through his possible formations and possible personnel to use at Spurs.

For example, Mourinho has a history of playing a Number Ten, and giving him a largely free role, encouraging him to get forward and score. Deco at Porto, Lampard at Chelsea 1, Sneijder at Inter, Ozil at Madrid, Hazard at Chelsea 2. And nobody at ManYoo! Through the Mourinho years, ManYoo didn’t have a proper Number Ten (and they don’t have one now) – it’s almost like a Number Ten wasn’t part of the ManYoo school of playing.

Then, people like to talk about Mourinho parking the bus, but an interesting feature of his game is that he uses a defensive midfielder who is good on the ball. Costinha at Porto. Makelele at Chelsea (he’s not that ultra-defensive midfielder commentators make him out to be – read Michael Cox’s Mixer to know more about him). Motta, Cambiasso and Zanetti at Inter. Xabi Alonso at Madrid. Nemanja Matic at Chelsea the second time round.

And again ManYoo didn’t have a comparable player. Mourinho took Matic along, but he didn’t do particularly well there (maybe he was past his prime?).

Then Mourinho likes a box-to-box midfielder who doesn’t mind doing dirty work. Essien in Chelsea 1, Khedira at Real. Ramires in Chelsea 2. Again ManYoo lacked such a player by the time Mourinho arrived (had he taken over earlier, maybe he might have used Paul Scholes in the role).

You can go on.

The remarkable thing is that Spurs actually have good personnel for most of the roles that Mourinho likes. They have an excellent Number Nine in Harry Kane. Dele Alli, Christian Eriksen and Hyong-Min Son are all capable of being the Number Ten (Alli is most likely to play there). Moussa Sissoko will be the box-to-box hardworking midfielder. Harry Winks can actually play the ball from central midfield. And so on.

So I expect Mourinho to do better with Spurs than he did with Manyoo. Even if he doesn’t have the budget to buy players of his choice in the next window.

Goalkeeper Mishmash

So one of the comments on my previous post about goalkeepers talked about how the relegated teams (Wolves, Bolton and Blackburn) had the worst keepers. So I wondered how they would have done had they had better goalies. I’ve still not figured out how to correlate a goalie’s distribution success to goals scored and so I’ll simply stick to shot stopping criteria.

I use the ratio of big chances to goals in each game to figure out how a different goalkeeper would have reacted. So if I have a goalie with a 90% shot-stopping ability and the opposing team has 10 big chances in the game, then I concede 1 goal. However, if my goalie has a 50% stopping ability I let in 5.

Based on the shot-stopping success ratio of each goalkeeper and the number of big chances faced by each team in each game, I have estimated the number of goals the team would have let in in each game. Comparing this against goals scored, I have come up with a hypothetical points tally for the season.

I know I abuse excel graphics a lot but I couldn’t think of any non-excel method to present the data here. I paired each goalie who played at least 1000 minutes during the season with each team and estimated how many points the team would have raked up.

Goalie Mishmash

Some pertinent observations.

1. The teams on whom the quality of goalie had the most impact are Arsenal, Blackburn, Wigan and Wolves. This goes to show how much Arsenal have to credit Sczsesny for their ability to reach the Champions’ League.

2. Everton is the team where the maximum and minimum possible points due to change in goalie is minimum (4, opposed to 14 for Arsenal). Shows that they have a pretty compact and tight defence, and what stops them from a top four slot is the quality of attack.

3. Due to the low number of big chances that occur in each game and due to rounding of goals conceded, you see some kind of a discontinuity in scores as you go down the list, as well as lots of ties. There is no mistake in the data or the calculations.

4. Manchester United has a much lower “goalkeeper impact” than Manchester City. With a lesser goalie than Joe Hart, it is unlikely City would have won the title.

5. Since we use overall averages of a goalie’s shot stopping ability, these simulations show different numbers for “real” goalie-team pairs than what the teams actually achieved.

6. The difference in maximum and minimum possible points as a function of a goalkeeper is a good indication of the overall quality of a team’s defense. The table below ranks the teams as per quality of defense.


7. While Blackburn and Wolves both had poor defence, part of Bolton’s relegation blame can be attributed to the quality (or otherwise) of their goalkeepers (Adam Bogdan and Juusi Jaaskaleinen). Which makes it even more surprising that West Ham (upon re-entry to the Premier League) sold Robert Green (to QPR, where he warms the bench) and recruited Jaaskaleinen in his place.

8. Last season, Liverpool had a pretty good defence (especially their first-choice back four of Johnson-Skrtel-Agger-Enrique). Their attacking ability (and especially their finishing – same story this season) let them down badly.