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Through the middle: Looking at what the U.S. midfield produced against Jamaica

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I spent most of Sunday morning starting at chalkboards at MLSSoccer.com, obsessed with one idea: “That pass Maurice Edu played (to Herculez Gomez) in the first minute. Why didn’t they try that more often?”

That’s easier said than done, though the concept is pretty straight forward. The team saw something that worked right off the bat: Herc running; midfield hitting him; profit. Why didn’t we see more of that?

That gets into a bigger, more subjective debate than I want to tackle here. For now, all I want to do is present some numbers to try and answer an implied question: Did we really see a lack of Edu-esque passes on Friday?

Starting with the premises that the first minute pass from Edu was a good thing, players try to perform that task, and teams would want to see more of that, I looked through the last four U.S. men’s games (three World Cup qualifiers and game in Mexico). I wanted to see how often Jurgen Klinsmann’s side is playing those types of passes, whether those numbers look high or low, and which players are playing the most passes of that type.

What are we looking for?

First, I need to define what type of passes I’m talking about. Check out how Edu’s Friday ball looks on the Opta-fueled chalkboard:

source:
Fascinating. If there’s a more boring way to represent that pass, I can’t imagine it.

Regardless, there are four characteristics of this ball that I think are important:

  • It’s a forward pass,
  • outside of the final third,
  • into the opposition’s final third,
  • and within the width of the penalty area.

That’s the criteria I’m using. How many times has the U.S. (and, to get context on each match, their opponents) completed passes that meet that criteria.

Disclaimer time: These Opta numbers can’t be taken that as gospel, especially if you’re not willing to re-watch a game and confirm them. In addition, the numbers without context are pretty useless.  A lot of these passes I’ll be citing may have no significance, and there are surely some that were important which don’t fit the criteria I’ve established.

So why even do this? Because if we get enough observations together, it does alleviate concerns that one or two deceptive passes can skew the whole endeavor. Plus, the Opta data and chalkboards gives us a way to establish some objective criteria (in this case, direction and location) that mitigates other subjective factors.

Opta has a number of different ways they characterize passes: Chip, dropped from hand, flick on, goal kick, headed ball, launch, and pass. Almost all of those can also be from a free kick. I’m focused on events from open play that are passes or short chips (trying to tease out crosses).

I’m also only looking at completed passes, even though tracking attempted passes might better capture a team’s intent. There are a number of other factors that come into play when collecting a negative result (all surrounding whether it was appropriate to play the pass at all). I decided to exclude them.

Jamaica vs. the United States

On Friday, the U.S completed nine passes that met this criteria. Jamaica had 10. Jermaine Jones’s four passes was tied with Jamaica’s Jason Morrison for game high. Maurice Edu (two) was the only other U.S. player with more than one:

source:

The numbers confirm that idea that Jamaica and the United States were on somewhat even footing. Jamaica never scored from open play, while the U.S. went 89 minutes without beating Dwayne Miler. But among the many things the number don’t do is provide context. Are 10 and nine (or, on the individual level, four) large or small numbers? What should we have been expecting from the U.S.?

Recent matches (Antigua and Barbuda, Guatemala, Mexico, Jamaica)

Looking back at the matches the U.S. has played since World Cup qualifying began adds a little more to the picture:

source:

It’s impossible to draw conclusions from this table, but it looks like defending was as much a problem as attacking. Jamaica didn’t score an open play goal, but both Beckerman and Edu’s fouls came after Jamaica had established possession in the U.S.’s end.

Regardless, the U.S.’s entries into the final third seem in line with what you’d expect, based on these four games. Mexico’s a superior side, while Antigua and Barbuda and Guatemala offered far less resistance. Jamaica proved slightly tougher than Guatemala, though perhaps we wouldn’t have expected the final third passes to jump from three (at Guatemala) to 10 (again, insert relevance caveat here).

Individual numbers

source:

This is like looking at stats in the first week of the baseball season: Fun, but not very informative. There are some things here that jive with our instincts, like the downgrade from Bradley to Beckerman It’s also interesting to note where Edu and Jones sit on this list, particularly given 90 of Edu’s minutes are in defense. While this sample is small, they have better rates than their potential replacements, Torres and Beckerman.

Back to the initial point, which was about the Jamaica game. Why didn’t we see more passes like the one that put Gomez through? Looking across at the U.S.’s previous games, it’s not clear we should have expected more.

Though perhaps the point. Whatever the numbers were on Friday, they weren’t good enough. They led to the U.S.’s first loss in Jamaica. Perhaps looking at these and saying “they’re when we would have expected” may be too close to saying “the U.S. should have expected to lose in Jamaica.” For many people (including, probably, U.S. Soccer), that’s not acceptable.

Player ratings from Arsenal 2-1 Leicester City: Who shone in title clash?

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It was pulsating. It was crazy. It could prove to be a decisive moment in the Premier League title race.

[ MORE: 3 things we learned

Arsenal’s last-gasp 2-1 win over 10-man Leicester City came after Jamie Vardy had controversially given the Foxes the lead, but subs Theo Walcott and then Danny Welbeck with the final attack of the game cut Leicester’s lead at the top of the PL to two points as the Gunners grabbed a huge win.

[ MORE: Welbeck reacts to heroics ]

Here’s a look at how each player fared on Sunday in what could prove to be a pivotal result as the title race has been blown wide open.


Arsenal

Petr Cech – 7 – Good stop down low from Vardy early on and commanded his box well. Hardly troubled in second half.

Hector Bellerin – 6 – Not as enterprising as usual in attack but very disciplined.

Per Mertesacker – 6 – Did okay. Fears about Vardy exposing his pace unfounded. Hardly tested when Leicester went down to 10.

Laurent Koscielny – 5 – Clattered into Kante in build up to Leicester’s goal. Came off at half time with an injury.

Nacho Monreal – 5 – Gave away the PK and although unlucky he got himself in a bad spot. Could’ve conceded another in second half too.

Francis Coquelin – 6 – Typical workmanlike display from the French midfielder. Tried his best to control Kante.

Aaron Ramsey – 6 -Missed several chances but kept on pouring forward. Needs to improve finishing. Big time.

Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain – 6 – Gave Leicester so many issues early on but faded as the game wore on.

Mesut Ozil – 6 – Yeah, he was going to get a 5 but that ball in for Welbeck’s equalizer was majestic. None of his flicks came off today.

Alexis Sanchez – 6 – Looked a little tired but kept on trucking. Leicester doubled up on him every time he got the ball. His pace got Simpson sent off.

Olivier Giroud – 8 – Didn’t score and had three or four half chances with headers but his knockdown for Walcott’s goal was sublime and not easy to negotiate Huth and Morgan on your own.

Subs: Calum Chambers (On for Koscielny, 45′ – 6 – Steady outing for the young center back), Theo Walcott (On for Coquelin, 61′ – 7 – Added pace which Leicester couldn’t handle. Good finish for the goal), Danny Welbeck (On for Oxlade-Chamberlain, 83′ – 7 – After nine months out, what a return. Glancing header won it for the Gunners)


Leicester City

Kasper Schmeichel – 7 – Made some tremendous saves, especially from Giroud in the second half.

Danny Simpson – 3 – Silly two yellows at the start of the second half as Simpson couldn’t handle Sanchez’s pace. Cost his team dear.

Robert Huth – 6 – Typically robust display. Cleared and blocked whatever he could.

Wes Morgan – 6 – See above. Will be disappointed the defense didn’t mark Welbeck tighter for the winner though.

Christian Fuchs – 5 – Had a bit of a nightmare early on and although he recovered the Gunners always looked dangerous down his flank.

N'Golo Kante – 9 – This guy was everywhere. Didn’t deserve to be on the losing team. Only Leicester man with energy to get up and support Vardy in second half.

Danny Drinkwater – 6 – Put in a shift but became overrun in second half.

Riyad Mahrez – 6 – Was causing problems and could have had a penalty kick in the second half. He was taken off but probably should have stayed on.

Marc Albrighton – 5 – Clipped in one good ball for Vardy early on and that was about it.

Shinji Okazaki – 5 – Plenty of running but didn’t get involved in the game. Had one chance in first half he fired over but flagged offside. He was onside by a yard though…

Jamie Vardy – 6 – Hmm. He scored the penalty kick which he won by dragging his leg into Monreal’s. No place for diving in the game. That said, forced Cech into a good save and looked sharp. Ran out of energy in the second half as the lone forward.

Subs: Marcin Wasilewski (On for Mahrez, 58′ – 4 – Did okay until he gave away a silly free kick right at the end which Arsenal scored from), Demarai Gray (On for OKazaki, 61′ – 5 – Added some pace on the break and one vital interception in defense), Andy King (On for Albrighton, 83′ – 5 – Didn’t have time to make a real impact)

Welbeck’s Arsenal heroics complete “roller coaster” ride; Walcott proud

during the Barclays Premier League match between Arsenal and Leicester City at the Emirates Stadium.
Michael Regan / Getty Images Sport
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Danny Welbeck hadn’t played for Arsenal in 10 months. It took him 12 minutes to score a goal that could live in Gunners’ history.

[ WATCH: The incredible late winner at the Emirates ]

Welbeck’s headed turn of a Mesut Ozil free kick deep into stoppage time lifted the Gunners to within two points of the Premier League’s first slot in a 2-1 win over Leicester City at the Emirates Stadium on Sunday.

A September setback meant knee surgery for Welbeck, and an even longer spell on the sidelines for the embattled Englishman.

All that helped Sunday’s goal felt even more massive.

From Sky Sports:

“Dying seconds, we kept pushing, had chance after chance. I missed the first opportunity and tried to make amends. It is important and the most important thing is to get the win. It has been a roller-coaster for me, a difficult moment and my family and friends know what I have been through.

Welbeck’s Arsenal and England teammate Theo Walcott, who scored the Gunners’ other goal, was pretty happy for his striker.

“This man hasn’t played for nine months and to get into the mix like that, special players come into into big games. That could be massive.”

He said it. Could Arsenal’s Manchester United import be the man who scored the biggest goal of a title run?

VIDEO: Watch Welbeck score incredible late winner for Arsenal

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Danny Welbeck is now an Arsenal legend.

[ MORE: 3 things we learned ]

The England international hasn’t featured in a Premier League game since last April due to injury and came on for the final stages with Arsenal and Leicester drawing 1-1.

Then, this happened.

[ RECAP: Arsenal 2-1 Leicester – Gunners snatch win ]

In the 95th minute Mesut Ozil whipped in an inch-perfect cross and Welbeck glanced home to sent the Emirates wild.

Click play on the video above to relive what will go down as perhaps the moment of the season so far with Leicester’s lead at the top of the Premier League now cut to just two points and Arsenal breathing down their necks.

Scenes at the Emirates. Scenes.

Three things we learned from Arsenal’s dramatic late win vs. Leicester City

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On Sunday Arsenal beat Leicester City 2-1 at the Emirates Stadium with Danny Welbeck‘s stunning stoppage time winner sealing a massive win for the Gunners and reducing Leicester’s lead at the top to just two points.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights

After Jamie Vardy had given Leicester a controversial lead via a penalty kick he won, a red card for Danny Simpson early in the second half turned the tide of this match and Theo Walcott‘s equalizer set up the dramatic finale Welbeck delivered.

Stunning. Here’s what we learned from a sensational clash in north London.

GUNNERS GRIND OUT

They did it. They actually did it. So many times in the past Arsenal have been in this situation at a crucial time of the season and they’ve blown it. Not on Sunday.

On Valentine’s Day the Gunners broke the hearts of Leicester’s fans with Welbeck glancing a header into the far corner with the final attack of the game. It was what Arsenal deserved as they forced the issue from the start and were unlucky to go behind after Vardy’s skulduggery to win and then score a penalty kick. Wenger made the right subs at the right time with both Walcott and Welbeck jumping off the bench to net huge goals in what is a pivotal 10-day spell. Heading into a two-week break in the Premier League calendar, the momentum is now with Arsenal and Leicester’s hearts will be heavy instead of fluttering. Moments like Welbeck’s 95th minute are exactly why you end up winning the PL title. True champions have a never say die attitude and despite missing chances and coming up against an in-form Kasper Schmeichel, the Gunners dug deep and ground what could be a season defining win. They still remain two points off first-place Leicester but it is surely now advantage Arsenal in the title race.


DIVING VARDY SUCKS ARSENAL IN

The major moment which shaped this game arrived in the 44th minute. It all started on the edge of Leicester’s own box — as does most of their best attacking play — as Ozil looked to be clearly fouled by Wes Morgan but referee Martin Atkinson waved played on and Arsenal’s player hesitated for a second too long. The brilliant N'Golo Kante (more on him below) broke free down the right and Laurent Koscielny fouled him but Atkinson waved play on. Jamie Vardy then latched onto the ball and suckered both Nacho Monreal and Atkinson in as he flicked the ball past the Arsenal left back and dragged his left leg into Monreal’s body. Call it what you want: clever, cheating. Vardy knew what he was doing and it’s not the first time he’s done it this season.

He slammed home the spot kick to make it 1-0 and although you could fault Monreal for initially sticking his leg out, Vardy looked to go over. The crux of this debate should revolve around why no free kick was given for Morgan clambering over Ozil. That would have stopped the trademark lightning-quick counter that has become the lifeblood of Leciester’s remarkable rise to the top of the PL this season. Riyad Mahrez went down in the opening five minutes of the second half in a similar fashion as he bamboozled Monreal with his slick moves and felt a clip on his knee so went down. Atkinson didn’t fall for it this time.

Walcott equalized and Welbeck grabbed the dagger in Leicester’s heart at the end and perhaps it was what the Foxes deserved after the way they took the lead. Vardy dived. Justice prevailed.


KANTE MAKES FOXES TICK

N’Golo Kante didn’t deserve to be on the losing team. He is not a holding midfielder. He is a machine. Kante had 47 touches in the first half and was absolutely all over the pitch. He broke down Arsenal’s attacks and after Christian Fuchs struggled to cope with the pace of both Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Hector Bellerin early on, Kante shuffled over and shut down the left flank. He is the undisputed heartbeat of Leicester’s team. Sure, Vardy provides the pace and Mahrez the trickery but the industry and grit comes from the tiny midfielder signed from Caen in the summer for what now looks like a paltry $8 million. Even when Leicester were reduced to 10-men he was the driving force, the only man who could had the energy to get on the ball and drive forward in support of Vardy. It was a monumental display from the man who was plying his trade in the lower tiers of French soccer until recently. Now, he looks like one of the most complete central midfielders in the PL.