Second XI - Neal's Awesome Weekend

What an amazing weekend, and I mean on just about every front I can think of. The weekend started on Thursday evening with a chance to meet up with a good friend followed by a great meet-up of people trying to advance the field of soccer analytics in advance of the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference. The first day o fthe conference on Friday was great with the highlights being a chance to meet a few people I admire who write about sports. The best part about all of these great opportunities was the fact that everyone I met through out the process from writers to analysts to bloggers to people aspiring to be all of the above seemed like genuinely solid people interested in learning and advancing knowledge.

How, you ask, could the weekend get better from there? Friday morning I got to watch the Arsenal vs. Liverpool match with some of the same analysts PLUS Jen Chang from SI.com and we were all sitting near a couple of Arsenal analysts in town for the conference and they were joined by the Assistant GM for the Boston Celtics who is also a big Arsenal supporter. Watching people who are employed in the field of sports as their day job get that excited about a match was refreshing after hearing so frequently in the media about how much of a business sports is. You worry that the people engaged in that business might be a bit too business-like but they were up and down with the action just like the rest of the pro-Gunners crowd in the bar. When RvP put in the winner they, along with the rest of the place, erupted.

It was also a treat talking about the game with Jen who I have talked with over the phone, emailed with, and Tweeted with over the years but never met in person. He's a smart guy who clearly knows the game and can have a debate without it all being about him being right or dominating the conversation because he works in the field as his day job.

Could it get any better from there? Somehow it did. Panels on Soccer Analytics featuring Drew Carey from the Seattle Sounders, Alexi Lalas from ESPN, and team analysts from Chelsea, Everton, and Hamburg. They had a lively discussion of where the soccer world is with respect to statistical analysis and how MLS differs from the big leagues of Europe in this respect. A few notes from this panel:

  • Unlike American sports where most statistics are publically available which allows non-professionals to help advance the field, data is scarce and expensive and clubs are very protective of their methods.
  • I was incredibly impressed by Alexi Lalas. He was very forthcoming about who he did well and poorly when he had his opportunities to be a GM at 3 different stops. If he gets a chance again, I wouldn't bet against him. Very bright and interesting guy. He is definitely hurt by the image he cultivated as a player, he's definitely more than "good on TV" and "good at creating an image".
  • Drew Carey (yes, the comedian/part-owner of the Seattle Sounders) was also very impressive. You expected him to be more comic relief than anything else but he came off as very much the engaged owner who thinks about things like how the club can gain an advantage through the use of analytics.
  • The European clubs were cagey about what they said but it sounds like they are more advanced when it comes to in-game and on-field analytics (how to help players train, when to make substitutions, etc.) than they are at using analytics to value players and find diamonds in the rough.

Oh, did I mention that Arsenal won a huge match with a great, late winner from the incomparable RvP? My fantasy team went for 142 points despite 3 players (Aguero, Silva, and Taiwo not playing). My Fulham crew of Schwarzer, Riise, Dempsey, and Pog going for nearly 100 by themselves. Blog favorite Gylfi Sigurdsson put in a brace as well. In addition to beating Liverpool, Arsenal benefitted from losses by Chelsea and Spurs as well as Newcastle getting a draw with Sunderland.

As you might imagine from a weekend were my fantasy team did well, my recommendations went pretty well too. Dempsey proved those who doubted his ability to score with Pog in the line-up wrong. Sunderland proved that their loss to WBA last weekend had more to do with them having a one-off bad match and WBA rising than a prolonged slump. Even the random midfield enabler I recommended (Drenthe) scored.

To top it all off, North Carolina crushed Duke in college basketball to round out about as good a sports weekend as one could possibly have short of actually getting to play a professional sport for a living.

I didn't get a chance to watch as many matches as I would have liked to over the weekend so I'm not going to write the full First XI. Hard to make too many comments about players or teams when you're trying to gather your impressions from textcasts, Tweets, and the like. Here are a few thoughts to get you started on next week though:

  1. What About Pog? - He has taken 5 shots on target and scored 5 goals. You have to love the efficiency but the warning is there. If he doesn't score you have to wonder if he's going to get many phantom points.
  2. Ashley Young Back - Wow. Spurs defending was rotten but once they made their mistakes you can't argue with Young's quality in scoring his brace. Good stuff and a long overdue reminder of why we called him Blog Favorite Ashley Young.
  3. Gylfi Rocks - Speaking of blog favorites, I hope you guys are all carrying him at 5+. I can only think of one or two weeks where he hasn't returned his value and most of those weekends he's been FAR better than that original price.
  4. AVB Gone - Hard to know where things went wrong here. It was most likely that Chelsea made a mistake hiring him in the first place but given that they chose to do so it seems like they should have used him as the catalyst/scapegoat for getting rid of some players whose best is past. Di Mateo may make the immediate results a little bit better by merely not being AVB but it will also likely mean taking a step back in the process of moving on from Lampard, Terry, et al.
  5. Spurs Crumbling - It will be very interesting to see what comes next for Spurs. Losing to Arsenal (even this season's version) at the Emirates and Manchester United (even if it was at the Lane) is nothing to get TOO upset about. I'll admit that the way they lost the last two was disheartening for supporters but they were never going to win the title and they're still in great shape for 3rd and a Champions League spot which, lest we forget, is a pretty huge deal for Spurs. The question has to be whether they start dropping points to mid-table teams like Chelsea have. If that happens then Arsenal may yet catch them for 3rd and win the North London race yet again.

That's about it for a great week/weekend for me. I'm sure it will all come tumbling down next weekend but for now how could I do anything but just enjoy it?

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