Monday, 2 November 2015

The myth of the good performance

31 October 2015 - Bristol City 1 Fulham 4

What does 'playing well' mean?

Because Steve Cotterill is convinced we did it in the first half-hour at Ashton Gate. He said as much to the club's media team after the match. We were the better team for the first 30 minutes, apparently, despite conceding two goals in that time. And the manager's right when he says that, in a way, the weekend's game sums up our season, because we keep hearing this. We played really well, we were probably the better team but then – oh no! - somehow the opposition have a chance, they take it, and we've got catching up to do. We lose, maybe we draw, we don't (yet) win once we've conceded. Afterwards, we console ourselves with the fact that we've played well and we have lots of positives that we can take into the next game. And on we go.

Playing well presumably means playing in such a way as to maximise your chance of winning the match. It can't refer to a particular playing style, as such. All those victories for Mourinho over Wenger over the years have come as a result of Chelsea executing their game-plan – normally involving breaking up play, snapping the ball as soon as it crosses the halfway line, staying drilled in defence and maximising crosses and set-pieces – better than Arsenal execute theirs, which involves possession, fluid interchange, quick passing and committing midfielders forward. Most football fans will probably admit a preference for Arsenal's way of playing, but clearly the simple fact of playing in one particular style doesn't itself mean 'playing better'.

This applies to Bristol City because Steve Cotterill has embraced a creditably entertaining, direct form of football – not Arsenal, perhaps, but something closer to the Brendan Rodgers or J├╝rgen Klopp model. It's based on high pressing, aggressive, direct running, moving the ball forward from front to back and giving almost all the team's players license to join the attack. When it works it works brilliantly, and we stormed a weak League One last season largely by blowing other sides away with our speed and relentlessness. That basic principles haven't changed this season yet – as we've seen – the results to date have.

So if we've stuck with our successful system, and have been playing well in more games than not, why have the results not started to turn our way as – over 14 games – you'd expect them to?

A look at the statistics doesn't help us much. In our last five defeats – 1-4 this weekend, 1-2 against Brighton before that, then 0-2 against Reading, 2-4 against Birmingham and 1-2 against Burnley – we appear to have done quite well. In four of those five games we saw more of the ball than our opponents, averaging 53% possession. And we've created chances, taking 54 shots in the four games. So, yep, fine, we're playing well – we're dominating possession, as we try to do, and we're creating chances.

But of course these are all attacking metrics. They show that the plan is working in an offensive sense. They don't tell us too much about what's happening at the other end. And this looks a bit less rosy.

In those five games we've allowed our opponents 65 shots on goal. Cotterill argues that the main difference between the sides in these 'good performances' is the clinical nature of our opponents, but the stats don't bear this out. In fact, our opponents have a 38% shots/shots on target ratio compared to our own 37%. The other sides aren't more clinical than us. What they are is better at defending.

This is pretty clear if you watch the goals from this particular game. (I know, I didn't either, but go on.) Fulham do well, but certainly for the first two, they don't really need to. Look at the first. One of our centre-backs, Luke Ayling, starts the clip in effectively the right midfield position, losing the ball. Once he does so, our actual right wing-back (wing-back, not winger, despite his starting position) fails to track their runner. This causes the only one of our centre-backs to start the clip in the right position, Aden Flint, to be dragged out of said position in order to cover. The Fulham ball is good and Dembele, in the space left by Flint, finishes well, but it's an easy run, an easy pass, and a fairly routine finish in all honesty.

The second goal is worse. I've absolutely no idea where Luke Ayling is – the camera focuses for much of the clip on the area to Flint's right, where you'd expect to see our right-sided CB in a three, but he's not there – and Flint is forced to knock the ball a bit long to one of our midfielders, neither of whom appears to have considered coming short to receive it. The pass is sloppy, it's immediately 3v2, and we're picked off.

The third goal is a beautiful free-kick (although at a saveable height), but the clip misses out the build-up. In that instance, Luke Freeman lost possesion on the halway line, and their player was able to burst forward to the edge of our box unimpeded by right wing-back, defensive midfielder or right centre-back. Freeman himself had to track back to make the challenge. He's an attacker, he got it wrong, got booked and they scored from the free kick.

Then the final goal – yes, OK, a good finish, but once more. Ayling is nowhere to be seen, Flint is pulled into his position, which means that once again a simple ball completely opens us up. Neither Marlon Pack nor Korey Smith are helping out, and Tunnicliffe finishes the one on one rather nicely.

These aren't just any old chances. The third aside, these are a tap-in, a 3v2, and a one on one. They're the sort of chances you expect strikers to take. Not all chances are created equal. Fulham were well organised at the back, hard to get around, and ensured that the shots we got away were largely from distance or after long, patient passing. It's not acceptable to say that Fulham happened to be more clinical or that we made mistakes. You'll never cut every error out of the game, it's played by humans. Ronaldo's missed sitters. Messi's miscontrolled the ball. Pirlo's undercooked passes. Our problem is that we play in such a way that a single mistake can immediately open us up.

And yet those goals came in the first half an hour when we were 'playing well'. And this is what concerns me. We were playing in such a way that we were always going to be vulnerable – playing with our centre-backs out wide, our wing-backs in the attack at all times, none of our midfielders further back than the centre circle. You know what? Of course it's possible to force the issue when you've eight players in the opponents' area at all times. Of course you'll pin them back a bit. Of course you'll control possession. You've more options than the other lot, more people to receive the ball.

But the flip side of this strategy is that you are permanently five seconds from conceding. It's like committing every chess piece on the board forward. You will by definition pin a number of your adversary's pieces back, because you'll control a lot of the angles by which their king can be reached. But your own king can be completely exposed. If they get a rook down the side you're done for almost immediately.

City's “good performances” and their habit of conceding goals have regularly been expressed as a baffling correlation. The official match report for this game makes this exact mistake, saying that “Seven would become eight by the 18th minute despite the fact that much of the time between the goals was spent in Fulham territory.” It's not 'despite', it's 'partly owing to', particularly when just two paragraphs later the report approvingly describes a centre-back joining the attack. We have seven players who should play further forward than our centre-backs. They don't need to be that far forward on the quarter-hour!

Let's stop claiming we're playing wonderfully when we're turning Championship matches into wide-open turkey shoots. Let's stop pretending to be baffled when we keep using Luke Ayling and Derrick Williams as auxiliary midfielders, then let in goals.

And let's not blame the system – 3-5-2 is a perfectly valid way to set up. It's not the fault of those three numbers and two dashes that our centre-backs are instructed to take the halfway line as their default starting position, that our wing-backs play like wingers (understandable; one is a winger, the other is far more winger than full-back, and Mark Little's not a great deal more defensively-minded), that our holding midfielders play like number 8s more than number 4s (which of the two is the committed DM, and why can't I easily work that out)?

These are tactical instructions coming from the manager. And they need sorting out or else we'll be in a relegation battle for the entire season.

And if we go down, I've no interest in hearing that we did so 'despite playing great football all season', thanks very much.


  1. An extremely well composed article. I think you are saying that you have not seen the games but are working on goals highlights and match stats. From someone who has seen every minute of every game the question I would have to ask is this: please remember that Cotts tried to buy an experienced Championship striker before the start of the season but was unable to probably because we are not yet deemed as fashionable yet for a top name. This obviously indicates that he knew what our problems might be at the outset. The other point I would make is that surely with the success that this group of players brought us last season then they are entitled to have a chance at this level to see if they can I'm prove sufficiently to help us get established. I think one of the keys to Saturdays result was the absence of Baker who was just beginning to form an effective relationship with Flint.
    If by the turn of the year we are still in the same position as we are now then I think that is the time to be more cautious and look at different players and systems. Please lets give these players and manager a bit more time before we look at alternatives. Do you remember how enjoyable last season was they deserve it.

    1. Hi Phil

      Thought I'd replied before, clearly not!

      I have seen a number of the games and was at the Fulham one, in line with all five goals!

      I don't think the problem, such as there is, is with the group of players, and I certainly agree that they've earnt a chance. I think they have been allowed to become overexposed by tactical instructions which are a little naive, and enable the quality teams in this division to score fairly easily.

      Our goal return is actually pretty good and Kodjia looks an excellent signing, it's the other end of the pitch which was worrying me when I wrote this!

      All that said, signs over the last two games have been far more promising, and I'd like to think the management are well aware that the defence/attack balance isn't yet right. Let's wait and see what happens over further matches; I don't actually think we'll go down, because I think we will continue to improve on this area.

      Agree that we look better with Baker in the side, and that we need to have patience. In fact, we largely agree I think!

      Safe journey back from Bolton - not a game I could make this year, although last time it was a fixture I was there.


  2. Well said Red Phil,
    I rarely read 'forum posts' because they are so often posted by people who dont go to matches. How could someone have made the journey to Boro, seen wins v Forest and last night and still be so critical of a right back, a system and a manager which TODAY sees at 3 teams in a much worse position than us and with 2 '6-pointers' coming up in the next 3 games. If these so-called fans want to post their opinions i suggest they start with "I dont go to games but want City to be winning the Champions League in 2 years time and here are my views" - then i can stop wasting my time! Oh yes and how crap was League 1 last year, and how little interest was there in a Great Double (40,000+) and how poor were golaie errors 99 times last season etc etc. Point made, I hope; Hampshire Red

    1. Hi Hampshire Red - see above for a full response but:

      1. I do go to games - not as often as I'd like but the Fulham game was the fifth time I've seen City this season
      2. I am critical because I want us to do as well as we can. That's not the Champions League but it's being competitive in home Championship games after the 20 minute mark
      3. The squad did brilliantly last season, that's not to be denied. But they can do even better this. It just takes a few tweaks and there's already evidence that those tweaks are being carried out.

      I'm as much a fan as you are, mate.