07 March 2013

Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics

If you read the headlines, our defense is terrible and leaky and error-prone. If only we could sign a world-class keeper or another center-back, we'd be in fine shape, right? However, a closer look at the actual numbers reveal that this is clearly not the case.

Ours is the 4th-best defense in the Prem, having conceded 32 goals in 28 games, behind Man City (24), Chelsea (30), and Man U (31). Our scoring record even sees us move to 3rd-best, with 53 goals, behind Man U (68) and Chelsea (56). So what gives? Why is it that, with these apparently-solid if not strong numbers, we languish in 5th place? After all, you'd expect a team with the 4th-best defense and 3rd-best offense to sit somewhere in 4th, if not 3rd, instead of clinging shakily to 5th.

The answer seems to lie in timing and distribution. Put simply, we've amassed too many goals in a handful of games, inflating our goals-scored with extra goals that just don't matter aside from the fun-factor or individual players' stats. We've gone 6-1 over Southampton, 5-2 over Spurs, 5-2 over Reading, 7-3 over Newcastle, and 5-1 over West Ham. In other words, of our 53 goals, 22 have come in only five games, leaving us to spread 31 goals across 23 other games, an average of 0.74 goals per game. Long story short, our superficially strong offense has too much of a feast-or-famine  manner to it. Seventeen games have seen us score once or not at all--it's a mixed bag of wins, draws, and losses, but if we could just "borrow" a goal here and there, a loss becomes a draw and a draw becomes a win. Say we take those five games and leave them at two-goal wins. That leaves us with six goals to mix and match. If we were careful, we could spend two at White Hart Lane to earn three points and deduct three from Spurs and spend another two each on our 2-1 losses to Chelsea,  and suddenly we have nine more points, and we're sitting in 3rd with 56 points, breathing down Man City's 59 points, while Tottenham drops to 4th with 51 and Chelsea drops to 5th with a measly 46. While I'm dreaming, I'd still like that Triumph Scrambler.

It's a similar story when we look at defense. Our 4th-stingiest defense seems to have a knack for conceding just enough to put us in peril, converting what could be draws into losses and what should be wins into draws. We have only nine clean sheets this year and only two truly bad defensive performances, the 7-3 win over Newcastle and the 3-3 draw with Fulham. The rest of our fixtures show a mish-mash of games in which we've conceded once or twice. Some have been acceptable--a 1-1 draw at the Etihad or at Merseyside, for example, but others have been simply abysmal--1-0 at Norwich, 0-0 at home with Sunderland or again at Aston Villa? These, among others, are all games that we absolutely should have won.  All too often, we've conceded an early goal and watched rather helplessly as our opponents abandon offense in favor of parking the bus (I'd call it catenacchio but that offers too much credit to teams that simply drop eight or nine players behind the ball. That's not defensive strategy in the sense of organization and positioning, that's just conservatism).

So we find ourselves in a bit of a dilemma--we do actually defend fairly well (emphasis on fair, as in average), inglorious defeats and draws aside. We just can't score when we need to, so we pour forward seeking that goal to unlock a game, get caught stretched out of position, and concede. Yes, our defenders and goalie are far too-often guilty of bad decisions, positioning, and strategy, but those mistakes magnify and multiply when midfielders and defenders are running back from an opponent's 18.  If we can score first, we can nurse a lead instead of chase after a draw. I'll still maintain that we need another defender and a goalie who can challenge or overtake Szczęsny, but it seems that our first priority is an assassin of a striker, a cold, remorseless scorer of goals who can put every single shot on frame, if not through the back of the net, instead of flubbing and fluffing as too many of our front-line boys are prone to do. Let's see what a Cavani, Villa, or Jovetić is available for and pick him (or them?) up. Sometimes, the best defense is a strong offense. Just ask Man U.