Luck Index 2019-20: Liverpool's Premier League lead is double what it should be
Ed Woodward has hit back at criticism of his Manchester United leadership by branding suggestions he picks which players to buy as "a myth" and "insulting."
Woodward has overseen a trying spell since taking over for chief executive David Gill in 2013, during which time United have slipped from Premier League champions to regularly missing out on a place in the Champions League.
Much of the fans' fury has been directed at the owners, the Glazer family, and the board -- particularly after a dismal start to the season that has seen Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's team collect just nine points from eight games and sit two points above the relegation places in 12th.
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Some supporters have pointed the finger at Woodward for the club's underwhelming recruitment record since Sir Alex Ferguson retired six years ago, but United's executive vice-chairman has rejected the suggestion he handpicks players to sign.
"There is a myth that we have non-football people making football decisions, and I think it's insulting to the brilliant people who work on the football side in this club," said Woodward.
"Many of the senior staff on the football side of the club have been in their roles for over 10 years. Some of our scouts have worked with us for more than 25 years.
"We've expanded our recruitment department in recent years and we believe this now runs in an efficient and productive way.
"Player recommendations and decisions are worked on by this department and by the first team manager and his staff, not by senior management."
Woodward has also addressed concerns that the commercial side of the club -- which has remained healthy despite a lack of success on the pitch -- takes priority at Old Trafford over investment in the playing squad.
"Our commercial business allows us to reinvest in the football side," he said. "It's how these two interact with each other at Manchester United that results in us having a competitive advantage in this area.
"What's important is the commercial side is never allowed to take priority over the football side."
The impact of summer signings Harry Maguire, Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Daniel James -- identified by a revamped recruitment department -- has been a bright spot during United's miserable start to the season that could reach new depths on Sunday if Liverpool win at Old Trafford.
Solskjaer has managed just five wins from 21 games since being appointed permanent manager in March, and despite mounting pressure after defeat to Newcastle, Woodward insists the Norwegian is still the right man for the job.
"Ole's vision maps exactly to the core three football objectives we have," said Woodward.
"We must win trophies, we must play attacking football, and we must give youth its chance.
"The middle section of last season, after Ole's arrival, feels most relevant to what we want to achieve and where we want to be.
"We saw a team playing fast, fluid football, with a clear representation of the style and philosophy the manager wants."
While new signings Maguire, Wan-Bissaka and James have been early successes, Solskjaer has been left with a squad short in midfield and up front after the summer departures of Ander Herrera, Romelu Lukaku and Alexis Sanchez.
Lukaku and Sanchez were allowed to leave late in the window with no prospect of bringing in a replacement, but Woodward has hinted the decision was made for the good of the group.
"Ole has instilled the discipline back into an environment where we may have lacked it in recent years," said Woodward.
"He is building a squad that respects the club's history, in which players work hard and respect their teammates. No one is bigger than the club."
Meanwhile, Brandon Williams has signed a new contract at Old Trafford. The 19-year-old left-back, who made his first senior start against AZ Alkmaar in the Europa League, has penned a deal until at least 2022.
A couple of years ago, N'Golo Kante might have been the most valuable soccer player in the world.
In August 2015, Leicester City signed the relatively unknown French midfielder from Caen for £5.6 million. The season before his arrival, Leicester finished with 41 points. In Kante's only season with the club, Leicester finished with 81 points, winning the most improbable championship in the history of modern sports.
Then, in July 2016, Chelsea signed the by-now-well-known French midfielder for £32 million. The year before Kante's arrival at Stamford Bridge, the club finished with 50 points, by far the worst tally since Roman Abramovich bought the club back in 2003. In Kante's first season with the team, Chelsea finished with 93 points, winning their fifth Premier League title. Leicester, meanwhile, held onto all of the other key contributors to their championship team, but without Kante, they almost slipped right back down to where they were before he'd arrived, finishing with 44 points.
Ignore any other context and it looks like Kante alone was worth something like 40 points a year. That's obviously not quite true, but it certainly seemed like Kante was one of those rare players who could significantly elevate his team's performance without putting the ball into the back of the net. And in the summer of 2017, a group of researchers from the University of Salford and University College of London published a paper that supported this very idea.
They created a number of models to determine a player's "plus-minus" rating, that is comparing how a team performs when a player is on the field with how it performs when he's not. These models are tricky and imperfect because unlike in basketball, most teams don't spend a significant amount of time with their starters off the field; therefore you get things like Manchester City's Claudio Bravo being the second-highest rated player in the world for the 2016-17 season. However, the results of the research also seemed to verify what everyone at Stamford Bridge and the King Power Stadium was thinking about Kante.
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"The paper presents a method for estimating how important each player is to a team's success," Ian McHale, one of the paper's authors, said over email. "For the seasons under consideration, Kante was found to be the player contributing the most to a team's success. And this doesn't just mean Leicester and Chelsea, but a hypothetical team made up of any set of players: Kante would contribute the most."
Except, in the two seasons since then, something has happened that had never happened before ... and it's happened two seasons in a row: The team Kante plays for didn't win the Premier League. In 17-18, Chelsea finished in fifth and last year, they landed third.
"Kante has plummeted down the rankings in the last 12 months, probably because he was played out of position for much of that time," said McHale.
Much of the discussion surrounding Kante over the past year-and-a-half echoes what McHale suggests. Since Chelsea signed Jorginho, a relatively immobile player who needs to sit in front of the defense and constantly have the ball at his feet in order to be effective, Kante has been deployed higher up the field under both Maurizio Sarri and current manager Frank Lampard. This discussion between BBC pundits Alan Shearer and Ian Wright serves as a good summary of the general sentiment:
Jorginho or Kante as Chelsea's holding midfielder...Do you agree with @IanWright0's assessment? pic.twitter.com/hRfFVTK4k3
However, Sarri claimed he needed a different player profile in his holding midfield role. "In that position, I want a player able to move the ball very fast... N'Golo is very useful for us, but this one is not his best characteristic."
In August, Lampard echoed those thoughts. "This idea that he wins the ball probably as well as anybody in world football doesn't mean that he has to sit in front of the back four and do that. He also has too much in his game to drive forward with the ball, to lead midfield areas and win the ball back high up the pitch. That's what I want to give him the freedom to do."
Even when France won the 2018 World Cup, Didier Deschamps opted to play Paul Pogba, of all people, in the holding role with Kante given the kind of freedom that Lampard talks about: license to win the back higher up the field.
Three separate coaches have envisioned a more aggressive role for Kante. Could they all be wrong?
Last season under Sarri, all of Kante's defensive numbers declined except one. In his sole season at Leicester, he made 5.22 tackles per 90 minutes and 4.65 interceptions, both of which led the Premier League. In his two seasons under Antonio Conte, he averaged 3.67 tackles and 2.45 interceptions and last year, he was down at 2.18 tackles and 1.28 interceptions. In the Leicester and Conte years, he won possession in midfield an average of 4.85 times per 90 minutes, ranking in the top three in all three years. Under Sarri, that number dipped down to 3.26.
What didn't dip, though, was the number of times he won possession in the attacking third. That rose up to 1.02 per 90 after not being above 0.63 in either of the previous three seasons. In fact, only Mohamed Salah and Richarlison won more possessions in the final third than Kante last season. The difference, of course, is that Kante's a midfielder and they're both attackers. So when Kante wins possession that high up the field, there tend to be more players ahead of the ball and therefore more players capable of capitalizing on re-gaining the ball. Why is this important? Because winning possession in the attacking third has also been shown to correlate with, well, winning games.
On top of that, Kante found his way into the penalty area more than he ever has before. He took 73 touches in the box last season after taking 58 touches in the box in the previous three seasons combined.
Winning possession in the attacking third and finding space in the opposition box are two of the most valuable things that a player can do that don't directly involve taking or setting up a shot. Kante may have been playing a new role, but he did more of these things than ever before. He also set or matched career highs in shots, chances created, goals and assists.
However, the value that Kante provided in years past was that he did the defensive work of multiple players and allowed Claudio Ranieri and Conte to often only play two midfielders instead of the customary three you see employed by the best teams in the Premier League. That made room for another attacker: basically another player who could win the ball back in the attacking third and make runs into the box.
The running joke at Leicester was that they "played three in midfield, Drinkwater in the middle with Kante either side." At Chelsea, Eden Hazard said of Kante's omnipresence: "I think I'm playing with twins."
Those teams were at least partially built around Kante's unique skills. His value wasn't necessarily in what he did; it came from everything he allowed his teammates and managers to do. But it's still not clear that one role is better than the other.
In Conte's last season with Chelsea, with Kante in his supposedly more natural role, they won 70 points on a plus-24 goal differential. In Sarri's one season, with Kante playing higher up the field, Chelsea won 72 points on a plus-24 goal differential. In terms of their expected goal differential last season, Chelsea were the clear third-best team behind Manchester City and Liverpool. Kante has only started three Premier League games so far but it seems like we're in for more of the same this season.
Kante hasn't really played enough to define his role within Lampard's preferred system, but early signs suggest that he's going to be used as something of a hybrid; his number of possessions won in midfield is up from last year, but he's already scored two goals. And so, perhaps the truth of the Kante conundrum is that he doesn't have a best position. He's never been a pure holding midfielder. He's never been a box-to-box runner either. He's always been somewhere in between but, in playing either role, he's proven to be indispensable.
Remember the year Leicester won the title? Kante won the third-most possessions in the midfield among all Premier League players. His teammate, Danny Drinkwater, was No. 1.
Tottenham Hotspur head coach Mauricio Pochettino has said that the club does not need to sign players in the January transfer window.
Pochettino has come under pressure following a poor start to the Premier League season that has seen just three wins, including losses to Brighton, Leicester and Newcastle.
Spurs, who reached the final of the Champions League last season, were beaten 7-2 at home to Bayern Munich earlier this month, continuing a poor start to the competition this time out.
But when asked whether he feels he needs to add to his squad in January, Pochettino said in a news conference on Thursday: "I don't believe [we do]. I believe in the players we have that are in Tottenham today.
"I respect the opinion of people who say we need to change. But if it is my decision, I am going to stick with the players because they have quality to fight for the things we expect to fight."
Spurs spent heavily in the summer window, signing midfielder Tanguy Ndombele for a club-record fee £65 million, as well as adding left back Ryan Sessegnon from Fullham for £25m and Giovani Lo Celso on loan -- both of whom have spent lengthy spells out injured time since their arrival.
The club did not make a single signing last season.
Pochettino also said that Sessegnon and Lo Celso are "a long way off" the fitness level he requires for them to return to the matchday squad.
On Spurs' poor form, Pochettino added: "I trust 200 percent in them [the squad] and believe that they have the capacity and potential to win the games and turn this situation around.
"This type of situation happens at all clubs sooner or later. We have confidence that we have the quality. Only a matter of time to make things clear.
"It's not about selection, not about the names, it's about collective behaviour and performance."
Spurs will look to turn things round when they face Premier League strugglers Watford at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium on Saturday.
Arsenal midfielder Mesut Ozil has said he is always blamed when things go wrong at Arsenal, but that he will remain at the club until "at least 2021."
The former Germany international has struggled for game time this season, making just one Premier League and one Carabao Cup performance and not yet completing a full 90 minutes, but has insisted he will try to prove himself at the Emirates, rather than looking for minutes elsewhere.
"When I signed the new deal, I thought about it very carefully and said it was one of the most important decisions of my footballing career," Ozil told The Athletic.
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"I didn't want to stay for just one or two more years, I wanted to commit my future to Arsenal and the club wanted me to do the same.
"You can go through difficult times, like this, but that is no reason to run away and I'm not going to. I'm here until at least 2021.
"When I moved from Real Madrid, it was a really tough time for Arsenal, but I always believed in what we could do and together we delivered. More recently things have been difficult and a lot has changed, but I'm proud to be an Arsenal player, a fan and I'm happy here. Whenever people see me in the street I always say, 'This is my home.' I'm going nowhere."
While Arsenal manager Unai Emery has said Ozil's limited game time this season has occurred because other players "deserve it more," Ozil said he has no problem with the Spaniard.
"All I know is what has already been said," he said. "It's disappointing, of course, but as a professional footballer, I have to respect the decision of the coach. This should not be about me or the coach, only the club."
The 31-year-old, who signed for Arsenal in 2013, has at times come under scrutiny for his performances at the north London club, particularly in so-called big games, but said the criticism was largely unjust.
"It always happens that an ex-player stands there on TV and criticises me," he said. "Others just continue the theme and it gets in everyone's heads.
"If we don't do well in a 'big' game, it's always my fault. If that's true, how do you explain our results in the 'big' games when I wasn't involved? There's no real difference.
"I know people expect me to offer more, dictate play and make the difference -- I do, too -- but it's not that straightforward. I'm not the only player in the team and, don't forget, some of our opponents are simply better than us.
"Also, what is a 'big' or 'small' game? In the Premier League, anyone can beat anyone. Look at Wolves and Norwich beating Man City, or Newcastle and West Ham beating Man United. So you can't say my good performances only came in 'small' games, because these games don't really exist."
We're eight games into the Premier League season, and and it already looks as if our hopes of a title race might be over. Liverpool have amassed an eight-point lead in winning every match, but they are lucky to be so far ahead.
ESPN and the team led by Dr. Thomas Curran, at the London School of Economics, compile the Luck Index, to examine how the Premier League would be if luck were not a factor through this season. And our latest update shows that Liverpool's lead would in fact be slashed in half if they weren't so lucky.
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Liverpool were headed for a surprise 1-1 draw against Leicester at Anfield before, five minutes into added time, Sadio Mane fell to the deck after contact from Marc Albrighton. Penalty! James Milner converted with virtually the last kick of the game -- one point turned into three with seconds remaining. Lucky? Plenty of people would say so. Even though there was contact, Mane's theatrics earned the penalty.
Manchester City are two points worse off than they should be after referee Michael Oliver failed to give the champions a penalty against Tottenham earlier in the season. One point that should have been three.
If those decisions were reversed, Liverpool lose two points and City gain two, reducing the gap between first and second to four points.
JUMP TO: The Anti-VAR Index
Any other unlucky teams? Bournemouth are two points worse off, with Aaron Cresswell's deflected goal for West Ham helping the London side claim a draw. Turn that into a home victory and Bournemouth would be sixth in the table, rather than 10th.
Man United were unlucky that Crystal Palace's Gary Cahill wasn't sent off with a straight red card for denying a goal-scoring opportunity. If the ref had made the correct call and Palace went down to 10 men, the Luck Index predicts that United would have earned a point and, as a result, would be two places higher in the table, in 10th place.
Arsenal (loss of 2 points), plus Aston Villa, Leicester and Sheffield United (1 point) complete the list of the league's unluckiest teams.
But hang on, where is Lady Luck sending her charm? Crystal Palace are four points better off and would be 11th in the table, five places lower, if they weren't so lucky at Man United and in avoiding a late equaliser at home to Aston Villa.
Brighton, Newcastle and Southampton have had luck go their way, winning games that would have turned out to be draws. The loss of two points would shift each club a couple of places down the table.
West Ham complete the list, one point better off.
Decisions, decisions, decisions ... In a shock turn of events over the past month, VAR has actually started giving goals to teams rather than taking them away.
We've seen Bournemouth, Arsenal and Crystal Palace all awarded goals that last season would have been chalked off by the linesman's flag. That's a good thing, right? Well, don't let the football purists hear you say that.
So far 15 match-changing incidents have been overturned, with 11 goals disallowed. But what does this all mean for the Premier League table? Who would be much higher in the table without VAR, and who has VAR helped the most?
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The Anti-VAR Index mirrors the Luck Index at the top of the table, with Liverpool's lead cut in half to four points. Jurgen Klopp's men lose two points because, without VAR, Chelsea would not have had a goal disallowed against them at Stamford Bridge, resulting in a draw. And Man City would have won at home to Tottenham earlier in the season.
Man United can also have a good moan about VAR, as Arsenal gained an equaliser at Old Trafford when Pierre-Emmanuel Aubameyang had a disallowed goal ruled back in, costing the Red Devils two points.
The only team to suffer a greater points drop than the Manchester clubs are Sheffield United. Chris Wilder's team have enjoyed a great start to life back in the Premier League, but just imagine if the goal disallowed for offside at home to Southampton, when the score was 0-0, had stood. The Anti-VAR Index say the Blades would have won rather than suffer a 1-0 defeat, shooting them into lofty heights of seventh. That climb of six places is the greatest in the list.
West Ham, who have been involved in a third of all overturned decisions, would be two points and three places better off in fifth. Aston Villa, Brighton and Wolves would also have two more points.
Meanwhile, Bournemouth and Tottenham have profited most from VAR decisions and would slide five places down the table to 14th and 15th, respectively, had original decisions stood. So things could be worse for troubled Spurs boss Mauricio Pochettino. Burnley don't fare much better, dropping four places into 11th, when you strip out VAR decisions.
While that trio of clubs might drop the most positions without VAR, it's Southampton who lose the most points. With two VAR decisions in their favour, they are docked three points, but as they are 17th they can only fall into 19th but one point off the foot of the table.
Total checks: 475Overturned decisions: 15Penalty decisions: 0Red cards: 0
Most decisions in favour: Southampton (2)Most decisions in against: Chelsea (2)Most involved club: West Ham (5 overturns)