Data Rant: van Gaal’s Netherlands model
Spain was humiliated in Brazil, to an ‘anti-tiki-taka’ Netherlands side to boot. It begs the question of just what kind of system new Manchester United manager Louis van Gaal will use at Old Trafford? Say it quietly – David Moyes has not been gone long enough for United fans to consider direct football without flinching – but the direct approach has been in vogue for some time. van Gaal might persist with the Dutch model at Old Trafford.
There is a clear relationship between possession gained and points won in the Premier League, below. The correlation is solid, but not so much so that this can be taken as fact. In addition, this analysis lacks a crucial element in distance covered by the ball.
A short passing game can increase a side’s possession statistic, but so can a long ball game if the direct passes connect accurately. In addition, chances can be made by more agricultural methods as well as the advanced; a key pass made through a clever one-two is worth the same as one created by a punt from inside a team’s own half.
However, the general inefficiency of long ball football has long been known – United under Moyes epitomised this point. Theoretically, though, a well-drilled side full of capable passers can create even more chances from deeper positions by utilising the extra time and space granted.
Data Rant computes ‘Chances In Meters’ (CIM) by multiplying pass accuracy, average pass length and number of chances created, to measure the amount of ground covered by key passes, while adjusting for prolificacy of attempts. CIM has a very strong relationship with points won and supports the theoretical argument that more accurate long balls can be just as effective as a series of neat passing triangles near the box.
For example, a team capable of one well-executed Hollywood ball every game can win just as many points as a side making two incisive through balls each match. Direct football can work in the right hands.
Consider, once again, the Spanish and Dutch World Cup sides. The Netherlands is well behind in pass accuracy to Spain, but has attempted on average longer balls. Despite this, the Dutch national team has produced one more chance than Spain and has a higher CIM count versus Spain. It is worth noting that Spain was beaten 5-1 by the Netherlands.
The direct approach espoused by Moyes left United seventh in the Premier League last season. Still, United currently lacks the midfield – Ander Herrera notwithstanding – to attempt a more cultural approach. The pragmatic van Gaal might continue with the Dutch philosophy, albeit much more adroitly.
Should van Gaal indeed decide to mimic the current Dutch side, Adnan Januzaj and Shinji Kagawa will probably perform the Arjen Robben role of providing direct running in the final third. Juan Mata, on the other hand, will likely be supporting the attack rather than having the play funneled through him. A central midfielder must then connect defence with attack.
Tom Cleverley can provide energy, while Maroune Fellaini may bloom into a top central midfielder under new management. United needs a surefire option though and a midfielder who can perform in the box-to-box role has been purchased in Herrera. Curiously though, Cesc Fabregas was passed over by van Gaal and the more callow player recruited.
Bryan Robson is perhaps the most memorable box-to-box midfielder at Old Trafford. There are qualities that are inherent in such player; an ability to carry the ball and beat opponents and certain feistiness, especially in the air. In addition, the box-to-box midfielder must protect the defence while putting up the numbers offensively.
Taking Robson’s two goals in every 10 games as a benchmark we analyse a number of Premier League central midfielders and aggregate key metrics, below.
Data Rant uses interceptions, tackles and blocks as a proxy for defence; take-ons, headers, and header success for box-to-box midfielders; and shots, goals and assists for attack.
Herrera boasts the second highest score in the box-to-box category, while contributing almost equally in defence and attack. Fabregas, on the other hand, contributes relatively little defensively and concentrates on making an impact in advanced areas.
Jonathan de Guzman is in charge of transition in van Gaal’s Dutch side and his aggregated statistics bear a great resemblance to Herrera’s. Both are remarkably well-rounded midfielders and a direct option, at least as a plan B, is clearly in the new United manager’s thinking if the story about him turning down Fabregas is true.
The new contract for Antonio Valencia together with Herrera’s arrival provide strong evidence that United may very well start the 2014/15 season with an approach that ruined last season. Moyes brought in Fellaini after failing to secure Herrera – the £27.5 million spent didn’t amount to much. Will United get some bang for the buck with £28.5 million spent on Herrera?
All data from Squawka
A brief note on methodology:
1) All categories are weighted equally
2) Each figure has been adjusted relative to the ‘best’ in each category
3) Assumptions dictating linear regression have not been held strict