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- Premier League: the hidden statistics and what they tell us
By Tony Attwood
A Liverpool newspaper recently made the comment: Liverpool would be top of the Premier League table if VAR wasn’t in place.
To back this up they cited a study from ESPN, that the “Reds” would be five points better off and sit two points clear of Arsenal in second. And they continue, “this is without taking into account Luis Diaz‘s wrongly ruled-out goal against Tottenham Hotspur last month.”
Following the game at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, it was revealed that VAR mistakenly believed that the on-field decision had been to award the goal. This resulted in VAR Darren England, despite realising that Diaz was onside, relaying a message of ‘check complete’ and the goal being ruled out.
According to ESPN, “The biggest decision to go against them [Liverpool] came at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, when Curtis Jones was shown a red card in the 26th minute. The score was 0-0 at the time, with Liverpool’s recent form slightly better than Spurs’ and at that point in the game their xG was higher. With 11 players on the pitch, the VAR Effect gives Liverpool a 1-0 victory – a six-point swing on Tottenham.”
They also cite the disallowed Mo Salah goal against Chelsea on the opening day of the season, concluding that if that had been allowed Liverpool, already being 1-0 up “would have gone on to win the game instead of drawing.”
Now there are two problems here. One is we don’t know from this how many points VAR has stolen from other clubs, nor how the VAR decisions affected the players’ response to the game. VAR does not exist in a vacuum, although journalists generally consider that anything they look at exists entirely on its own.
But VAR decisions often affects the game. A club that was pressing for a goal to win a game might get it via VAR and then drop back and defend deeper and deeper, and as a result the opposition could score.
And this really is the point. All actions on the pitch affect subsequent actions. Players can sulk and take the view that “we can’t win with this ref on the pitch”, or they can, like Arsenal against Chelsea recently, get one goal back and be utterly motivated to score again. Chelsea were surprised by the Arsenal goal and so started pulling back and the entire psychology of the game changed.
Which brings us back to referees and VAR. A decision that players think is wrong can motivate them, or can make them more apathetic. It shouldn’t do, but it can do.
That is why professional football clubs employ psychologists. Arsenal have Lucy Burdin for example. (Sadly there are still some people who watch football matches who confuse a psychologist with a psychiatrist – but really I don’t think I can do anything about that.)
But let’s get back to the plot. VAR gives a high dodgy decision to one side in a game. How does the other team react?
One possibility is that they get deflated, thinking and perhaps saying, “What can you do against a ref and VAR operator like this?” That depressive thought reduces the player’s effectiveness and the chance of a recovery is reduced.
Another possibility is that the psychologist has worked with the team saying, “Right this ref is clearly a Tottenham [or choose any other club] supporter, so you are not going to get anything out of him. And you are going to get dodgy decisions against you. Now you can either shrink away from that and give up, or you can decide to beat not just the opposition XI but the ref as well. That’s going to mean an extra 20% effort from you. Now this is how you do it…”
I firmly believe this is what happened at Arsenal in 2019/20 when the club got 86 yellows and had no less than nine players get over five yellows. The following season the total not only came down to 47; a drop to around half the earlier number. This time only five players got five or more yellow. Artteta changed the players’ attitudes.
This next table shows how Arsenal has moved itself to the Manchester City model. It is not a smooth movement because players are injured, new players take a while to adjust and so on, and of course injuries can get in the way of progress. But the table shows two things
First, both teams have cut their yellow cards level across these four seasons – Arsenal by more than double that of Manchester City
Second both teams have increased their possession levels across the four seasons. Arsenal by more than double that of Manchester City
Third both clubs have cut their tackling across the four seasons, but here it is Manchester City who have cut it more than twice as much as Arsenal.
We have often argued that Arteta is copying the Manchester City model, and once again these factors show this is true. Of course, Manchester City are improving too, secure in their knowledge that they will come out of the 110 charges inquiry on top. We shall see.
|Arsenal 2019/20||86 (+26)||52.9 (-9.7)||15.4 (+1.9)|
|Arsenal||47 (+1)||52.7 (-8.1)||12.0 (-1.1)|
|Arsenal||60 (+18)||52.6 (-15.6)||14.2 (+1.1)|
|Arsenal||52 (+8)||59.7 (-5.5)||14.9 (+2.6)|
The simple positive news is that Arsenal are getting closer and closer to the very successful Manchester City level of yellow cards, and possession percentage and tackles. It is an interesting development and is undoubtedly part of a clear plan.
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