Thursday, December 31, 2015

Lies, Damn Lies And Newcastle United Statistics

Here we are at roughly the midpoint in the EPL season and my beloved Newcastle United are underperforming as usual. After spending $50M on players in the summer, the second-highest sum in the league, they still stink and are in the relegation zone at 18th. Deservedly so, I might add.

In most sports, statistics are a good gauge of a player's worth. In American football, basketball and especially baseball, statistical comparisons give you decent results. For example, New Orleans' Drew Brees' passer rating this year is 100.7 Tampa Bay's Jameis Winston's is 86.1. Brees is a first-ballot Hall-of-Famer. Winston has an uncertain future.

In soccer, stats are a bit murkier as soccer is a lot of foreplay with little scoring*. Tracking successful dribbles, completed passes and tackles is all very well and good, but most of them take place during play that's not really going anywhere. Having said that, you'd have to think that stats would be at least somewhat useful in comparing players. Let's see what we can do with statistics in determining where the Toon's biggest needs are.

From watching their games, I think they need to replace Paul Dummett (defender, too slow) and Vurnon Anita (midfielder, too small) at the very least during the January transfer window. As a whole, my assessment is that their weakest spot collectively is midfield.

Squawka is an excellent website which tracks all kinds of crazy statistics for soccer. It has sortable player rankings by position, which I've used for this analysis. With 20 teams in the league, you would expect an average team to have players in 11th, 31st, 51st and 71st places in the rankings for each position. If you want the derivation of this, leave a comment and I'll reply with it.

Here's where Newcastle United stack up by position.

Defense: Average Delta = -50.25

Player Ranking Expected Delta
Mbemba 41 11 -30
Coloccini 80 31 -49
Janmaat 103 51 -52
Dummett 141 71 -70

Midfield: Average Delta = -20

Player Ranking Expected Delta
Wijnaldum 12 11 -1
Colback 55 31 -24
Anita 81 51 -30
Sissoko 96 71 -25

Strikers: Average Delta = -21.67

Player Ranking Expected Delta
Perez 23 11 -12
Cisse 50 31 -19
Mitrovic 85 51 -34

At first glance, it looks like our defense is the worst area on the team. However, let's try a couple of things. First, let's assume that we replace Anita and Dummett with second-level average players. That is, players who would rank 31st overall for their position. Here's what happens.

New Defense: Average Delta = -22.75, Improvement: +27.5. The new player automatically becomes the best defender on the team and everyone in the table moves down one row, facing lower expectations, reducing each player's delta from their expected value.

Player Ranking Expected Delta
Newdude 31 11 -20
Mbemba 41 31 -10
Coloccini 80 51 -29
Janmaat 103 71 -32

New Midfield: Average Delta = -7.5, Improvement: +12.5. Similarly, the new player becomes the second-best midfielder on the team, improving the others' deltas as above.

Player Ranking Expected Delta
Wijnaldum 12 11 -1
Newdude 31 31 0
Colback 55 51 -4
Sissoko 96 71 -25

Those are decent improvements, but I think they understate the effects.

Non-quantitative argument in favor of these moves

Now let's look at some of the players in comparison with their stats.
  • Sissoko. When he wants to play, he's great. When he doesn't want to play, he's terrible. My take on his season is that he is a reflection of the players around him. He needs players who are catalysts to bring out his best. If he sees sloth or indifferent play, he shuts down. Give him a playmaker in the midfield and I think he'll blossom. There's no way he's the 96th-best midfielder in the league. He's much better than that.
  • Janmaat. Because we lack midfield  talent, Janmaat is effectively playing midfield and defense. He's frequently out of position because he's so far up the field trying to help us score. Give him a playmaker to take the ball and he won't be straying so far from the goal as often.
  • Wijnaldum. Don't get me wrong, I love Paul Dummett. He's what Jon Gruden would call a "grinder." I don't think he ever lets up. Unfortunately, he's too slow to get up field, so Wijnaldum has no help advancing the ball on the left side of the field. Get a replacement with some pace and Wijnaldum will seem much better.
  • Coloccini and Mbemba. I hate to say this, but Vurnon Anita is little more than a speedbump when it comes to defense. EPL-level players simply run over him. He's too small to be playing defensive midfield. Replace Anita with a playmaker or a goon like Tiote used to be and I think our defense will improve considerably. They're completely exposed right now and it shows in the stats.
  • Strikers. I don't think they're as bad as the stats indicate. I'm no fan of Cisse - he can't turn around with the ball to save his life, but they've got no creativity or speed behind them in the midfield. I know this is the position everyone wants to fill, but to me it seems like we'd end up right where we are right now - frustrated strikers struggling to make everything happen on their own. I'd be starting Perez and Mitrovic every game and try to give them a speedy winger or playmaker in the middle to help them score.


I still don't know what to make of our new manager, Steve McLaren. There's no pace and not much size on the team, so I can't tell if he's any good or not. Further, with the way Mike Ashley runs the team - the manager has almost no say in player recruiting - I can't see anyone wanting to take the job outside of McLaren. Certainly none of the big-time managers would come to Newcastle under these circumstances. They all want total control.

I know I've contradicted myself in this post with my fantasy midfield player - I want both defense and playmaking, but I'd settle for either, allowing Colback to either go forward or become the midfield goon. I saw a stat on Colback that said he was really fast, which surprised me, so maybe he's just playing out of position right now to make up for Anita being such a defensive liability.

The team doesn't seem to me to be relegation-worthy. They just look like they're two players from comfortable safety.

Comments are welcome.

* - Yes, I came up with that one myself. I'm rather proud of it, to tell you the truth.

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