Extracts of Blagg's football blogs as he follows West Ham United and England through the usual series of near disasters.

Featuring links to the Annual Billy Blagg Advent Calendar of Christmas Songs.

Also featuring guest appearances by 'Captain Olympic'.

Wednesday, 28 August 2013

Lies and Statistics

Joe Cole scored from a low cross from Matt Jarvis.

GettyImages: Joe Cole scored from a low cross from Matt Jarvis.

In an excellent post on ESPN FC, Michael Cox makes the brave attempt of trying to ally football statistics with results and comes up with a fascinating insight into a resource used more and more by managers and coaching staff everywhere, but one which, many believe, comes to naught when applied to 'real life'.

By an odd coincidence, on our opening game articles, having not seen the earlier post by Cox, both myself and Cardiff correspondent Mike Morris made mention of some statistics of our own that we'd noted. Mine concerned the amount of balls charged down by Hammers player's - a tactic that breaks up play and also puts goal-keepers under pressure and one that has resulted in at least two goals being scored in pre-season games - while Morris mentions the old chestnut of non-productive possession over meaningful and incisive football. Perhaps after one game where all possibilities are still currently open, this might be the best time to discuss the current use of statistics in the game, especially - as noted by Cox - as Sam Allardyce is one of the leading exponents in the use of technical data.

Amusingly, in the way that these things go of course, Cox's initial focus falls on the number of 'assist' crosses from Matt Jarvis that were left unconverted last season. In what looks an alarming statistic, it seems the 100 or so crosses provided by Jarvis and, the season before that, by Hammers new boy Stewart Downing not a single goal was scored. It is with a sense of inevitably then that we note the low Jarvis cross that Joe Cole spun on and poked home against the Bluebirds just 12 minutes into the new season. I guess the question is now: will it be another 99 times before that successful combination comes up again? I'd have to say, judging by Downing's performance when he came on for Jarvis in the second half of the game against Cardiff, this looks a little unlikely, with Downing whipping in several good crosses, running the full-back and even beginning the move that allowed Mark Noble the pass for Kevin Nolan's volleyed goal.

While I can see the advantage of using statistical data to find out the distance a player may travel during a game and the usefulness of tying this in with important facts such as the number of passes completed/lost, tackles made etc, evidence of the best method of scoring a goal has always proved to be maddeningly, but understandably, unreliable.

In a team game where any one of eleven players may make a pass, block, save or interception one minute that may result in a goal scored a minute or so later, it seems to me a reliance on statistics is akin to the argument that dictates that an infinite number of monkeys hitting an infinite number of keyboards will eventually produce 'The Merry Wives of Windsor'.

Any statistical analysis of goalscoring now is usually carried out because of the very fact that it is so much harder to score goals than it was a few decades back. Those who can score consistently are now diamonds that need to be paid a great deal of money and nurtured accordingly. While it would be wrong to suggest that strikers of yesterday weren't appreciated and sought after, if you look at the career of someone like, say, Bryan 'Pop' Robson who played for West Ham, Newcastle and Sunderland in a glittering career, scoring 30 odd goals a season on many occasions, you see that Robson inexplicably failed to gain a single England cap. Today, 'Pop' would command the type of transfer fee that makes bank managers blanch.

Then again, a quick look at someone like Robson still tells us much about the art of goal-scoring that reams of data don't. Not a tall player, Robson was deceptively good in the air, while his diminutive stature gave him an innate balance and enabled him to control a ball quickly and with a good deal of agility. Robson's greatest asset though was his instinctive ability to just get into the right place at the right time; an uncanny knack of seemingly being in the available space when an opportunity came up. His ability to 'pop' up with a goal convinced Ron Greenwood to pay the then princely sum of £200,000 for Robson after he had destroyed the West Ham defence in a 2-0 win by Newcastle at Upton Park.

Pop's link up play with Trevor Brooking is the stuff of Upton Park legend, both finding one another without even looking up, knowing that the 'space' would be where the other one was. What would be Pop's worth today? The eyes water just thinking about it, while Roy Hodgson can only dream of the opportunity of being able to pick a 30-goal a season player.

Of course, comparing players from different era's of any sport is an utterly absorbing, conversation-inducing but ultimately pointless exercise that ranks alongside discussing statistics; but it does highlight something that is as crucial to football today as it was when gentleman in top hats kicked a pig's bladder on the green. In short, goal scoring is a much sort after commodity and in that vein, amongst the good number of excellent comments on Michael's blog, is a telling post.

Bemoaning the fact that no-one has yet produced an analysis of an efficient way of scoring, one writer, Dan Kennett, goes on to say "..no-one (in the public domain) has really broken down "Manchester United" yet to look at WHY and HOW they are so efficient..."

Well, I hate to disagree but I think we have - it's just the stats are not seen on a computer matrix that measures passes, crosses or shots on target. Rather this machine measures money and influence and, if seen on a computer, it's usually from someone looking at the Current Account. For the best way of measuring goal scoring, is to look at the quality of the striker.

Manchester United are efficient because they usually have the best players, Robin van Persie having the essential skill to convert a large percentage of balls put through to him regardless of from what direction they travel. The key decision for the coaching staff at Old Trafford isn't to find the best way of getting the ball to the Dutchman but rather to make sure Van Persie is actually in the red shirt of Manchester United when the ball comes to him, rather than that of, say, Arsenal.

So us fans will welcome all the statistics and arguments, it keeps us interested at work and gives us hours of fun in the pub, but in terms of what we can glean from the percentages, the analysis and interpretation, I'm convinced the key lies in the amount of 'pretty green' in the vault. What's more, I suspect we'll have a glowing example of this next May when the colour of Wayne Rooney's shirt may well dictate the destination of the Premier League trophy and, if that happens, no-one will be looking anywhere else to see where his passes come from.

Monday, 19 August 2013

Uncensored version of West Ham 2 Cardiff City 0

Kevin Nolan's second half goal sealed West Ham's season-opening win over Cardiff.
The first game of a new season; common-sense, logic, statistics and history tell you that it's just another match and nothing that happens in this game necessarily determines the way the season will pan out.

But the football fan's mind is an odd thing. It will remember the times that first game did tell you something about what you could expect for the rest of the campaign -- an opening day 3-0 defeat to Villa in Avram Grant's relegation season still brings me out in a cold sweat -- and conveniently forgets the times when it mattered little (No example of that -- see what I mean?)

So, despite what the respective supporters will tell you, it's West Ham fans who will be happier after this comfortable 2-0 win. The home side looked sharper, slicker, fitter and more resolute than the visitor and Cardiff will perhaps feel a bit chastened after this. Jussi Jaaskelainen will surely have few quieter afternoons than this in 2013-14.

It was a warm, cloudy day at Upton Park and the game started in an obviously raucous manner with both sets of supporters in good voice, but it was the Hammers' faithful who seemed to have stepped up a gear with a host of new songs -- none available for comment here! -- many aimed at the Welsh visitors. The contingent from the principality were also welcomed by the home fans with a number of inflatable sheep bobbing around the Trevor Brooking stand. Yep, it was that type of afternoon!

Sam Allardyce named a side that looked pretty much like most of those that he fielded last season; new signings Razvan Rat, Stewart Downing and Adrian were all on the bench as were close-season hopefuls Alou Diarra and Ravel Morrison. Matt Jarvis and Joe Cole started and it was these two who combined superbly for West Ham's opener after only 12 minutes. Jarvis got in behind the full-back and crossed low for Cole, almost on the penalty spot. Cole gathered the ball, turned and struck a low shot just inside the post. As an opener, it was a delight.

If Cole felt under any pressure from the new close-season signings, then there was no sign of it. Possibly unburdened by having to have a J in front of the name on his shirt -- his erstwhile colleague Carlton off to pastures new -- this Cole looked like the one sold to Chelsea back in 2003. He dictated play in front of the Cardiff back-four and the only surprise in the first half was that the Hammers only went in one to the good.

Fans realise that managers have to be positive and say the right things sometimes but it was hard to suppress a smile when Bluebirds boss Malky Mackay said post-match that his side 'had to more clinical'. Cardiff barely had a shot to be clinical with, Winston Reid and former Cardiff player James Collins won every loose ball, tackle and header. In fact, had West Ham themselves been sharper in front of goal then Cardiff could have been sunk by half-time, Cole again probably missing the best chance missing an attempted shot/lob when clean through although Mo Diame also came agonisingly close with a superb strike that took a deflection to fly inches wide.

There was plenty of the usual fare available for Hammers fans of all persuasions; for those unconvinced of the Allardyce style, there was the expected collection of agricultural clearances out of defence -- many of them finding their way to the opposition -- but for those who see much to admire in Big Sam's management, there was the site of claret and blue shirts being thrown in front of every attempted shot. This was so successful that Jaaskelainen didn't have a direct save to make all afternoon. In a world full of statistics, I'd be intrigued to see how many shots and passes are charged down by an Allardyce team every season.

The interesting thing is these passages of play -- and let's be honest, they make up a major part of the game -- is that they almost go unnoticed. At one point in the second half, Diame threw himself in front of an attempted forward pass from a Cardiff defender in the Welsh half, the ball cannoning of the Senegalese player and rebounding back to Marshall in the Cardiff goal. As a disruptive ploy, it is fascinating to watch particularly for a Hammers fan fed on years of cultured play but little physical involvement.

Although West Ham were extremely comfortable all afternoon, there was always that worry that a single goal lead taken into the final stages might prompt a Cardiff push, so it was good to see Kevin Nolan opening his account again with a goal 14 minutes from time, effectively killing the game stone-dead as a contest. Downing -- who had come on earlier for Jarvis to make his West Ham debut -- was also involved and supporters will be mightily encouraged by the first appearance of the ex-Liverpool winger on this form, the England International found plenty of room to take on a man and make several dangerous crosses.

This time it was Mark Noble doing the good work though, threading through a ball for the captain to strike sweetly in from 20 yards. The crowd roared, the taunting of the visiting fans increased and Cardiff, with little else to do, took the game to West Ham for the first time, but other than a Peter Whittingham free-kick that went narrowly wide and a half-chance that fell to ex-Hammer Micky Maynard that was ballooned over, there was little to worry the home fans.

So what to make at the end of another season opener? Well, I suspect both sides will probably play better and both sides will certainly play worse. There are some concerns: although Modibo Maiga did well and was involved in some enterprising play -- particularly in the first half -- the Malian still doesn't entirely convince in front of goal and the search for another striker will surely continue.

But it's early days yet; nothing seen today will make anything certain during the coming autumn and winter...will it? Despite it all though, a win on the opening day makes things feel so much better.

Out of the mouths of babes and Wives

Leon Neal/AFP/Getty Images
Maintaining Premier League status is crucial to West Ham - and chairman David Gold, right - as the club prepares for their move to London's Olympic Stadium in three years.
The ubiquitous and glamorous Lady Blagg knows little about football, yet she has had to put up with a lot of West Ham-related horror stories over the years, but through thin and thin and the occasional binge season, she has always maintained the theory that "West Ham are either in mid-table or fighting relegation".

Of course, passionate supporters of their respective clubs will know full well that -- like families -- it may be OK for a member of that family to criticise and point the finger, but if anyone from outside attempts to do it, the family member will immediately jump to the defence and argue the opposite, no matter how appropriate and well-intentioned the original criticism.

Now despite a marriage certificate, the fact is Lady B is from the North-East of England and grew up far away from the sunny environs of the docks of the East End; she certainly has no part in the folklore of the area and has little knowledge of the Cockney idiom. So you can see that it is, with great difficulty and bristling with indignation, I have to concede that her observation has a good deal of merit.

A quick look at any of the Premier League tables -- indeed the old First Division format, too -- will reveal that the Hammers are often battling to stay up, going down unceremoniously, being promoted in blaze of glory or shuffling round in mid-table. There's been precious little else since the 1980s.

The problem with West Ham has always been that the perception of the club from the outside differs little from that of the inside. When the main club page at ESPN FC  -- not written by me, incidentally -- says the Hammers are "arguably the most important club never to win the English league" and that "the most important day in West Ham's history came when they were not even playing" there is little to do but swallow something jagged and smile through gritted teeth.

Opposing supporters, asked what most aggravates about the Upton Park outfit, usually bemoan the fact that Hammers’ fans go on about "winning the World Cup in '66", pretty much missing the point that, in the minds of many, that is exactly what the name West Ham is always associated with. That is likely to continue until either England win another World Cup -- not holding my breath there! -- or West Ham give them something else to think about, and that is never likely to come from the comfort of halfway up the division.

So, with the start of another season a few days away and being as it seems any other result is unlikely, can we expect another mid-table season or are we looking at a fight against relegationć The answer may surprise because, pretty much unlike any other team in the Premiership, West Ham are in the middle of a project; one that should see them in a larger stadium and with a profile they haven't had since the glory days of the mid-60s, and part of the demands of that project insist that the Hammers stay exactly where they are. In short, another mid-season malaise will suit us very well, thank you.

Now don’t get me wrong here. A drive into Europe through a higher league placing or, better still, a cup win somewhere, would be extremely welcome and long overdue, but then I'd expect the fans of most clubs to say that. But with the owners being very generous with the cheque book despite a still eye-watering bank balance, and Sam Allardyce's ability to get the best from a squad through shrewd tactical nous and playing to a side's strengths, there is a very strong likelihood that West Ham could start to fit nicely into those top places that exist in the "league within a league" and a cup run wouldn’t be a major shock either.

Truth is though, although a day out at Wembley would be welcomed, the lure of the secondary European league is pretty minimal and I’m not sure the added expectations of the owner’s or fans -- let alone the added pressure on the treatment room and Bank Manager -- are something that will be needed next season when the requirements will be pretty much the same as they are this.

But we're getting ahead of ourselves; for this season and a couple after, this is a side that needs to be the very model of the word 'consolidation'.

The arrival of Stewart Downing will certainly add to the strength of the squad and give the Hammers a few more options than they had last season, while the outlay can barely be considered a risk for a player still on the verges of the England squad and surely hearing the siren call of the samba rhythms of Brazil next June. In fact, this could well be a very shrewd bit of business.
Nobody is pretending supporters aren't expecting a good double-figure haul of goals from Andy Carroll, but it’s looking less likely that the Hammers may struggle without him if, as it inevitably seems, he is prone to spells out with injury. Elsewhere, the introduction of Razvan Rat and Adrian can only increase competition for places.

Meanwhile, there’s good -- though traditionally not surprising -- news from the youth ranks where several of the Under-18 squad are starting to look very good indeed. In short, West Ham United are looking uncharacteristically healthy.

Any type of relegation involvement would surely be a major surprise and there is a real opportunity to kick-on and gain a couple of rungs on last season’s 10th place. Really though, everyone knows the significant moves are likely to follow in the seasons after the move to Stratford, and all anyone wants right now is for the club not to follow the usual route of shooting itself in the foot nor having ideas above their currently limited station.

So, if the capricious Gods of football want to smile on us for a season then bring it on. But, if, on the other hand -- and the wife may scoff -- the Hammers finish somewhere round about the middle of the table, then you won’t hear any complaints from this blog.

Krakow 2013