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Tuesday, 11 December, 2018

Little things mean a lot to Man City boss Pep Guardiola

More wise words from the soccer boffin

Pep Guardiola embraces Sergio Aguero
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Manchester City were a lot better this season than last season. They got a lot better by improving in all sorts of little ways.

It is something Johan Cruyff tried to do when he was manager of Barcelona in the early 1990s, and it was one of many things noticed by a young player he promoted to the first team – Pep Guardiola, now manager of Manchester City.

City won the Premier League by taking 87 points from their first 33 games – nine more than their total after 38 games last season, when they finished third. How did they do it? What changed?

The first difference was that City spent even longer with the ball. City had the ball for 71 per cent of the time it was in play during their matches, up from 65 per cent last season. On average this season City spent an extra three minutes attacking, which meant of course that they spent three minutes fewer defending.

Possession is useful only as a means to an end, however.

Guardiola has said: “The percentage of possession a team has or the number of passes that the group or an individual makes is irrelevant in itself. What’s crucial is the reason they are doing these things, what they’re aiming to achieve and what the team plans to do when they have the ball. That’s what matters.”

City spent more time with the ball and less time without the ball. And they used all of the time well. City had more shots for and fewer against. Last season they averaged 17 shots for and eight against. In the first 33 games of this season they averaged 18 shots for and six against.

And their shooting was more effective. Last season they scored once every eight shots. In the first 33 games of this season they scored once every six shots. Perhaps last season with mostly the same attackers they were unfortunate not to have scored at least a bit more often.

Here's an interesting aside. Last season City conceded once every eight shots. In the first 33 games of this season they also conceded once every eight shots. Ederson is probably a better goalkeeper than Claudio Bravo, who played most of last season, but the main reason City conceded fewer goals this season is that they allowed opponents fewer shots – not that the keeper saved a higher proportion of them.

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City were probably fortunate to score quite so many goals.

Expected goals stats, wherever they come from, consider the location of each attempt. Those on the FiveThirtyEight website also consider as best they can the players making the attempts, which is helpful. From any position City ought to score more regularly than, say, West Bromwich. They have better players - as they should. They pay them three times as much.

FiveThirtyEight estimate that in the first 33 games of this season City should have scored 80 goals and conceded 24. What City did was score 93 goals and concede 25. They conceded one more, which is neither here nor there. They scored 13 more. To some extent at least that was probably fortunate.

Even without scoring all those surplus goals, however, City still should have won the Premier League.

Guardiola has described himself as an “ideas thief”. He said: “Ideas belong to everyone and I have stolen as many as I could.” One of the many good ideas he has stolen is that a lot of small changes put together can make a big difference.

When a putt is better than a pitch

Pep Guardiola was playing golf when Manchester United lost to West Bromwich and Manchester City became champions. Twenty-five years earlier Sir Alex Ferguson was playing golf when Aston Villa lost to Oldham and Manchester United become champions.

They could have stayed at home and watched every kick on television. Instead they did something else. Wise choice. There are some things it is better not to watch.

Phileas Fogg in the novel Around the World in Eighty Days found himself on a steamer called Mongolia sailing from Suez to Aden. It was a journey that usually took six days. “But the Red Sea is full of caprice, and often boisterous, like most long and narrow gulfs,” wrote author Jules Verne. “When the wind came in from the African or Asian coast, the Mongolia, with her long hull, would roll fearfully…

“What was Phileas Fogg doing all this time? It might be thought that, in his anxiety, he would be constantly watching the changes of the wind, the disorderly raging of the billows – every chance, in short, which might force the Mongolia to slacken her speed and thus interrupt his journey. But if he thought of these possibilities, he did not betray the fact by any outward sign…

“How did this eccentric personage pass his time on the Mongolia? He ate his four hearty meals every day, regardless of the most persistent rolling and pitching on the part of the steamer, and he played whist.”

There are some things it is better not to watch. These things, for example.

In betting markets on the number of goals, corners, cards or whatever in a football match the odds that most often represent value for money are those on a low total. Why? Because hardly anybody bets low. Why? Partly because most people like to watch a match they have bet on, and it can be agony to watch hoping all the while that this shot does not go in, or that it is not deflected behind for a corner, or that the shooter is not tackled badly.

In those circumstances the best policy is to bet low but not watch. Do something else. Watch another match. There will usually be one on a different channel. Or study for your next bet. Or read a book, or go for a walk. Or play golf.

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The main reason City conceded fewer goals this season is that they allowed opponents fewer shots – not that the keeper saved a higher proportion
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