Heavy goals .... that night at the Bernabeu .... and a dead man walking

Ballet dancers, ice skaters and Olympic divers are judged on 'style'. Golfers are not: no golf correspondent would seriously suggest that X is a better golfer than Jim Furyk because the latter's swing is less appealing to the eyes. At the end of the day, footballers have to be judged not according to some unspecified aesthetic qualities (or their height) but rather by their contributions to their teams' performances. Consider then, for selected strikers, their minutes per goal (mpg) aggregating their appearances in major European leagues:

(a) Dzeko, in 179 Bundesliga + PL appearances since 2007, has scored at 133 mpg;

(b) Van Persie, in 221 PL appearances since 2004, has scored at 135 mpg;

(c) Torres, in 281 Primera Division + PL appearances since 2001, has scored at 163 mpg;

(d) Aguero, in 232 Primera Division + PL appearances since 2006, has scored at 164 mpg;

(e) Rooney, in 337 PL appearances since 2002, has scored at 168 mpg;

(f) Tevez, in 191 PL appearances since 2006, has scored at 170 mpg.

[Data from as of 28 Feb, 2013]. Perhaps it is not a coincidence that Dzeko and RVP, who have significantly better mpg figures than the rest, score regularly with both feet and with their heads.

For both last season and this season to date, Edin Dzeko outperforms Robin Van Persie in each of the following performance indicators:

(i) minutes per goal;

(ii) clear-cut chance conversion ratio;

(iii) minutes per chance created from open play;

(iv) minutes per being caught offside.

Of course, comparisons between footballers can never meet the ceteris paribus desiderata of laboratory tests. They can never even be as satisfactory as comparisons of the achievements of professional golfers who, provided that they play on the same tours in the same era, at least face reasonably level 'playing fields'. Now it may well be that, compared to RVP, Dzeko spent relatively more of his time on the field during periods at which goals are relatively more common. In such periods, are offsides less common, clear-cut chance misses less common and chances created by strikers in open play more common? But, in any event, how does all that stack up against the fact that, in contrast to Dzeko, RVP has benefited from being serviced by wingers of the quality of Walcott (whom RVP singled out in an awards ceremony at the end of last season), and of Nani and Valencia this season? More significantly, any impartial observer with any clue about man-management, would attach great import to the fact that, whereas RVP has received the unqualified and enthusiastic support of Wenger and Ferguson, Dzeko's performances have been despite Roberto Mancini. In fact, I had hoped with my original post that perhaps some thoughtful forum members might pick up on what the performance figures might say about a manager who, on the one hand, seems to look for any opportunity to relegate Dzeko to the bench or to question his contributions and, on the other, has made public statements that, if United win the league, it will be down to their signing RVP. I had made that point explicitly in commenting on a recent Independent article that suggested (correctly as it turned out) that Mancini planned to drop Dzeko (despite his having scored 6 goals in his 6 previous premier league starts).

Heavy goals and contributions to the team

Mancini has recently been boasting unashamedly about his own achievements in the last two seasons. However, without Dzeko's match-saving goal away at Notts County, we would not have won the 2011 F.A. Cup. Other crucial Dzeko goals have been highlighted by David Platt:

"If you look at Edin's career for Manchester City, the goals he has scored, he has got a lot of heavy goals, goals that are very important. I remember goals at Blackburn the season before last which more or less gave us Champions League qualification. You look back at last season as well and he got some vital goals. To win the league, Aguero's goal will always be the one but remember Edin equalised."

Platt said this to the press in October, after Dzeko's two goals against West Brom had transformed a deficit into a win. After Dzeko's goal won the Spurs game in November, Platt was again sent out to face the press; he spoke again about Dzeko's heavy goals. Without Dzeko's goals this season, Mancini would surely have been a dead man walking some time ago. In any event, given Dzeko's match-winning goals against Fulham, West Brom and Spurs and given that Dzeko, having been brought on in the 90th minute away at Stoke, was only denied a winning goal by Shawcross dashing back and frantically clearing his lob off the line, it was frankly a dereliction of duty when Mancini waited to the 84th minute to bring Dzeko on against United, in what was manifestly the most important home league game of the season.

Any suggestion that Dzeko cannot, and does not, combine effectively with David Silva does injustices to both players' versatility. Silva has gone on record as saying that his best pass of the 2011-12 season was the one to Dzeko for the final goal in the 6:1 victory over United. I will be amazed if, when he looks back over the current season, Silva does not rate as one of his best (if not the very best) his exquisite return pass that set up that Dzeko goal against Spurs. Dzeko set up a goal for Silva in that celebrated victory over United and has created several scoring chances for Silva this season (as in the recent QPR game). Dzeko's mental alertness not only explains his very high chance conversion ratio of 59% this season and why he has so seldom been caught offside; it also means that he is effective in quick passing movements. Moreover, he can pass - not just score - with both feet. One of the best passes by a City player in the 2010-11 season came in the replay against Notts County when Dzeko 'stunned' the ball with his right foot and swept it with his left to put Tevez clear through for the 3rd goal (a pass very similar to that Silva pass to Dzeko against Man. U.). Dzeko has often played a role in the build-ups to goals he scored himself. Examples are that key goal against Spurs, the first goal in the recent Norwich game, and his most recent goal against Southampton. He also passes to other strikers! For example, after Sergio Aguero came on for the last 10 minutes of the recent Fulham game, he was put through by Dzeko on two occasions (and not by his heading on long balls). In the recent Arsenal game, Dzeko played a perfectly weighted ball putting Carlos Tevez clear through one-on-one with the goalkeeper (he missed). Had Messi or Rooney or Silva made that pass or the pass against Notts County, the commentators and reporters would have drooled about them; but, as it was, they barely got a mention.

Anyone familiar with Bluemoon will know that there is a small but strident minority of forum members who regularly denounce Dzeko, partly to inflame the Bosnians who visit that forum. Often believers that Tevez should always be the first name on the team sheet, their anti-Dzeko arguments seldom rise above smart-arse comments such as 'touch like an elephant'. Certainly I cannot recall them providing specific examples (such as Tevez' failure to convert that chance against Arsenal or Balotelli's awful first touch that led to his appalling tackle on Song in the Arsenal game last April). Nor do they point to specific games in which Dzeko's touches were consistently poor (such as Rooney in some of the last few matches of last season or countless games by Torres or even Aguero in our last game against Chelsea). Instead, they make sweeping statements and, when challenged or presented with facts about Dzeko's achievements, they respond with: "I know what my eyes tell me". But, of course, people often see what they want to see; and their brains process what that think they see according to their own preconceptions. One of the advantages of the EPl Index data is that they are collected by people who presumably do not have particular personal axes to grind and who certainly do not think that footballers should be judged, like ballet dancers or ice skaters, in terms of 'style'.

The dream partnership?

Tevez + Aguero may be City's best partnership in Fifa 13 computer games or in the imaginary mental games of those who think in terms of media stereotypes. But this over-hyped partnership simply does not stand up to serious scrutiny. Since the Newcastle away game on May 6th, in the 11 premier league games in which they started together, City were winning in only 3 of those games when the partnership was broken by substitution. A major explanation for the sterility of the partnership is that Tevez sees other strikers as rivals: he rarely passes to them and typically only does so when he sees a return pass in the offing. He froze out Emanuel Adebayor. He froze out Mario Balotelli. He froze out Dzeko after his arrival. Using the Guardian Chalkboard, Tevez completed just 6 passes to Dzeko in the first 6 premier league games after the latter's arrival at City. But what about his Argentine pal? I used TV recordings to count Tevez passes to Aguero in the last three critical games of last season. Ignoring kick-offs, the number of completed passes from Tevez to Aguero were:

Man. U: 1 pass in 67 minutes

Newcastle: 0 (zero) passes in 70 minutes

QPR: 2 passes in 75 minutes

When Tevez was taken off in the QPR game, Niall Quinn observed: "he has certainly frustrated both his colleagues and the City fans today" (or words to that effect). Despite the fact that Tevez contributed virtually nothing in those last three crucial games, we have been subjected to drivel about how Carlitos returned refreshed from his golfing holiday in Argentina and, more or less single-handedly, won the premier league for us!

Before the start of this season, I predicted that, if Tevez played regularly, Aguero would be sidelined by him and much less productive in terms of goals. I also predicted (so far, correctly) that TV commentators and journalists would express bewilderment as to how Aguero could score fewer goals than in his first premier league season, especially with Tevez to inspire him! The Tevez publicity machine - run by Paul McCarthy's agency Macca Media - has such a powerful influence, particularly over journalists with whom McCarthy has worked over the years, that journalists, TV commentators and pundits (with the notable exception of a few ex-players like Niall Quinn) seldom question what Tevez gets up to on the field and they simply regurgitate and reinforce the usual media myths ("always gives 100%").

If anyone wishes to challenge my claims about the reluctance of Tevez to pass to other strikers, please provide specific examples of where Tevez has wittingly provided clear-cut scoring chances for other strikers. I appreciate that he has created some scoring opportunities by crosses from the byline. What I would be impressed by are concrete examples of where he has wittingly provided incisive through balls for Adebayor or for Balotelli or for Dzeko or for Aguero - passes that are similar to the two through passes by Dzeko to Aguero in the Fulham game or to Dzeko's through ball to Tevez in the Notts County replay or to the pass by Dzeko that put Tevez one-on-one with the Arsenal goalkeeper or, indeed, to the recent through pass by Tevez, himself, to Milner in the last Arsenal game. On the face of it, there ought to be lots of examples! In the case of Tevez, we are not talking about a striker who plays little or no part in build-ups / passing movements and who is there just to score goals and who always thinks he is better at it than anyone else (van Nistelrooy?). Tevez is constantly dropping back to get the ball and gets involved in many of our attacks. Indeed, the distinctive feature of Tevez is that his natural, almost child-like, first instinct is to run towards the man with the ball, whether to harry an opponent or to demand a pass from a colleague. That he can energise lesser players was one of the reasons why he was my favourite City player in the 2009-10 season and why I wanted to name our new puppy after him (fortunately my wife would not agree). It was only in the following season - mainly through his behaviour towards Balotelli and subsequently towards Dzeko - that it dawned on me that he takes the selfishness common amongst strikers to unprecedented levels and that, when surrounded by talented players, he can be a serious impediment to team performance.

Possibly the decisive moment in the current season (and in Mancini's managerial career at City) came in the 71st minute against Real Madrid in the Bernabeu. Dzeko had scored in the 69th minute. Just two minutes later, we had a break with Tevez on the ball and with Real Madrid in complete disarray. Dzeko was on his right and a player of Tevez skill could have put a through-ball giving Dzeko as good a chance (on his right foot) as he had just converted (with his left). Instead, Tevez passed left to Kolarov hoping optimistically that he might provide a centre for himself to score. He never got near the attempted cross. Had Tevez passed to Dzeko and had we gone 2:0 up ....

Dzeko's future

Pace shuddertothink but Wolfsburg's strategy was not focused exclusively on Dzeko but involved a formidable partnership between Dzeko and Graffiti. Dzeko has stated his own preference for playing with a strike partner. Last month, he said of his partnership with Aguero: "We played well together. It is important for the team that strikers play together – it makes everything easier." It is much harder for Aguero to reciprocate such a sentiment lest it upset his compatriot. In any event, under astute management, Aguero + Dzeko could have been one the most effective partnerships the premier league has ever seen. Perhaps, it could still be in the future.

There are, of course, currently rumours that Dzeko will be leaving in the summer. Dzeko, himself, is recently quoted in the German magazine, Kicker, as saying: "I love the Bundesliga and I will return to the Bundesliga. I can just not say when I will return. I have still two years [on my] contract. We will see what happens" [my emphasis]. But there were similar rumours last April, based on unofficial press briefings possibly designed in part to deflect attention away from Balotelli's infamous behaviour in the Arsenal game (and from scrutiny of his disciplinary record throughout the season). An Independent article claimed that "privately City acknowledge that he [Dzeko] is a player who needs to be loved". Repeatedly used in briefings against Adebayor, this latter expression was, to my mind, a rather devious way of suggesting a weak personality. Well, anyone who has doubts about the strength of Dzeko's personality should read about his upbringing during the Bosnian war. Certainly, he is not one to be intimidated by Mancini. Just like Joe Hart, in fact. Perhaps therein lies the rub.

Clearly, if Mancini stays at City, it is very likely that Dzeko will be transferred. However, Mancini himself may be a dead man walking -- and only Khaldoon, Soriano and Begiristain (himself, a winger) have any real idea what Mancini's departure might imply for City's playing style and for the futures of particular players. In the interim, as American convicts say of someone on death row with nothing to lose, beware the dead man walking. For my own part, I fear that much damage may have already been done.

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