The Analyst Diary – March 7
1-Four-1 Days of Woe
Such is the disparity between Manchester City and Manchester United these days that it wasn’t uncommon to spy United fans before Sunday’s derby hoping that their side would concede fewer than four goals. In local derbies, four goals is pretty much the official threshold for extreme bragging rights to kick in, and, to be fair, it looked like City would end the game merely as 3-1 winners until the VAR officials in their Middlesex lair confirmed that Riyad Mahrez was entitled to a second goal, two seconds into stoppage time.
It’s the fourth time this season Manchester United have conceded four or more goals in a league game, a torrid spell of 141 days that is just one illustration of how far the club have fallen from their domestic dominance of the 1990s and 2000s. Yes, United under Alex Ferguson could occasionally concede six to Southampton, or get thumped by Newcastle, but outside of October 1996 these were generally sporadic events, statistical anomalies. The 4-1 scoreline yesterday matched City’s 4-1 home win against United in March 2004, when the balance of power in Manchester was very different. That result was painful for United fans but as it happened it was only the fourth time they’d let in 4+ goals in the past 2,696 days, or nearly eight years. That’s a bit longer than 141 days.
The last time United conceded 4+ goals in a shorter span of top-flight games as they have currently was in December 1970 (126 days), while fortunately there can’t be many fans around who can remember the start of the 1930-31 season when by mid September Manchester United lost 4-3, 6-2, 6-0 and 7-4 in the space of only 14 days. And none of those 1930s players had social media accounts either.
Are You a Laca Backer?
Arsenal’s seemingly unstoppable procession to a top four finish (that seemed unlikely when they started the season with three successive defeats and began September on the bottom of the Premier League table) has been partly powered by the resurgence of Alexandre Lacazette, who supplied two more assists in his club’s 3-2 win at Watford yesterday.
As we revealed last week, Arsenal attack through the central zone of the pitch more than any other Premier League team this season and this has been a trend enhanced since Lacazette returned to the starting XI in the club’s dismal 2-1 defeat away at Everton at the start of December. Starting with the 2-0 home win against West Ham on December 15, Lacazette has provided seven assists, two more than any other Premier League player in that spell, and all of his appearances for the team have come in the starting XI. His contract expires at the end of this season but the French forward is an integral part of Mikel Arteta’s team for the next couple of months at least.
Seven assists = good, but a glance at those same players’ expected assists for the same period shows that the Arsenal forward’s contribution could well be marked down as an unsustainable purple patch. With a reminder that the expected assist model rewards players who pass into dangerous areas, regardless of whether the receiver takes a shot or not, it’s not surprising to see Trent Alexander-Arnold on an enormous 5.05 in this timeframe. The Liverpool man’s almost unique combination of skillset and team role means he is always going to get more opportunity to play defence-ruining passes than someone like Lacazette, but even so, seven assists from an xA of 0.93 should probably be marked down as “enjoyable but susprising contribution” rather than “cast iron reason player should be offered a new contract.”
Ain’t No Love (Ain’t No Use)
The 1990s dance band Sub Sub reformed themselves as Doves towards the end of that decade, and it seems like the reverse process is happening to the Bluebirds this season, as Cardiff City have become incredibly effective at using their sub (subs) off the bench.
At QPR on Saturday they equalised via substitute Isaak Davies, before going on to win 2-1, and last midweek Cardiff defeated Derby at home thanks to a goal from Uche Ikpeazu, a – you guessed it – substitute. Cardiff have seven substitute goals in their last 11 Championship games with three of them being winning goals. They lead the 92 league clubs with 12 in total, two ahead of Manchester United, and are doing nothing less than living up their most important club tradition (other than not changing their shirt colour from blue to red).
Because since 2010-11, the record number of goals by substitutes in a single season was the 20 scored by… Cardiff City in 2019-20, followed by the 19 scored by… Cardiff City in 2012-13 (and Reading in 2011-12). If that wasn’t enough then Cardiff’s subs have also provided 11 assists so far, making it a cool 23 goal involvements from their industry feared benchmen.
So, if there’s one fanbase who can legitimately get excited every time the fourth official’s board is raised to indicate a substitution, it’s Cardiff’s, but if there’s one set of supporters who shouldn’t – this season at least – it’s Blackburn’s, because 100 substitutions into 2021-22 and the Rovers replacements have contributed no goals and no assists. Give Steve Morison at Cardiff a ring, lads. He’ll bring you on leaps and bounds.