"What do you mean you've hurt 'your' knee, it's Liverpool's knee" - Bill Shankly.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

An Analysis of Joe Cole’s Performance This Season

December 17, 2010
By Rob McDonald

Joe Cole was Roy Hodgson’s marquee signing in the summer. The player deemed to have the creativity and skill to bring a sparkle to Liverpool Football Club that seemed to have been missing, probably since the departure of Luis Garcia, in the final few seasons under Rafael Benitez. In those seasons Liverpool played a possession game and were deemed to be found wanting when it came to unlocking defences at Anfield, where teams would often park 10 men on the 18 yard line and challenge Liverpool to break them down.

With the loss of Yossi Benayoun to, ironically, Chelsea it seemed that Liverpool were lacking a player who can play a defence-splitting pass when Steven Gerrard wasn’t firing on all cylinders. As well as this, Liverpool were seen to be lacking a player who was skillful enough to play in tight situations and take on players.

He was signed on a bosman from Chelsea, following their summer clear out, and is reputedly on a fairly hefty contract. Needless to say, there is a lot of pressure on him. But pressure is something that Joe Cole should be used to, seen as the natural heir to Paul Gascoigne’s crown and thrust into the limelight at a very young age (indeed, Manchester United were said to have offered £10m for him when he was still in his teens). After being a prestigious youth at West Ham, he moved to newly monied Chelsea during Abramovich’s first financial injection and played in 35 of 38 league games under Claudio Ranieri. Chelsea finished runners up in the league and reached the semi finals of the Champions League, but it wasn’t until Jose Mourinho took charge the following season that Joe Cole became a key component in the Chelsea team.

He scored 20 goals in his first two seasons under Mourinho and was named in the PFA team of the year for the season 2004/2005 after a free scoring end to the season which helped Chelsea to their first league title since 1955. After these two seasons, however, he was hampered by injuries and only managed to make 24 appearances in the following season. He returned to his earlier form in the 2007-2008 season and played a prominent role in Chelsea’s run to the Champions League final where they lost on penalties to Manchester United, and helped Chelsea finish runners up in the league. This was to be the last season in which he did play a prominent role at Stamford Bridge as injuries hindered his last two seasons at the club.

Joe Cole has always been hampered by the fact that he isn’t a very typical English player. His natural – and favoured – position is in the trequartisa role in the hole behind the front line. Traditionally trequartista’s aren’t hampered by defensive responsibilities and were the creative force to a side, but in modern developments of the game this position has become something of a stigma of continental laziness and deemed a luxury that can’t be afforded. As well as this, it has become very easy for defensive sides to mark trequartista-esque players out of games thus stopping the primary creative force in a side, so managers have had to adapt and change the way they play. A tradition of possession based playing games of ratios combined with the increasing importance on inverted wingers – which managers tried to make Cole into – has all but eliminated the idea of having one sole creative force.

Gradually Cole has had to adapt to playing a more systemised role in a side, rather than playing with the creative freedom he may have enjoyed in a different era and the question that hangs over him of whether he’ll ever be able to fulfil his creative potential in a systemised side in 2010. Chelsea didn’t think so, and given that there didn’t seem to be much competition for his signature from any major British or European sides, a great many other clubs don’t think he can either.

It is hard to judge Cole on the half of a season or so he’s had at Liverpool so far. A lot of factors can be considered to contribute towards his lacklustre start in a red shirt – new manager, new ideas, suspension, injury et cetera – but a lot of the frustration has been at his abhorrent lack of effect on games, aside from a couple of Europa League matches. In his 8 appearances in the league, 7 of which were starts, he has only contributed 1 assist and hasn’t scored.

For the sake of comparison I’m going to compare Joe Cole’s record in his 496 minutes against Arsenal, Manchester United, Sunderland, Blackpool, Everton, Blackburn, Bolton and Aston Villa with Maxi Roriguez’s 516 minutes against Bolton, Chelsea, Wigan, West Ham, Spurs and Aston Villa (I elected to omit Rodriguez’s performance against Stoke due to it being something of a statistical anomaly due to the nature of the game). Both players played, primarily, on the left and cut in field during these matches and although it could be argued that Maxi was fortunate enough to play during a richer vein of form for the club, I’m going to deem this redundant as his role is, in my eyes, influential in the style of play that has contributed to Liverpool’s rise in form.

Statistically both players have a similar passing record, Maxi attempted 279 passes with a completion rate of 82% and Cole attempted 268 passes with a completion rate of 77%. But it’s the motion of these passes that have shaped their fates so drastically over the course of the season. If you look at the heat map (fig. 1) you see that Maxi has a far more even dispersion of passes, whereas Cole’s were primarily around the half way line or in front of the 18-yard line. Another key difference between the two performances is that Maxi’s passes are generally more forward thinking and varied in comparison to Cole’s which are primarily exchanges in one specific area of the pitch (as seen in Fig. 2).

(Fig. 1 – Cole’s most effective game at home against Blackburn* compared with an example of Maxi in the home game against West Ham)

*I judge this game as his most effective as he made an assist and, comparatively, had a good offensive pass completion record, whereas in previous games he struggled with offensive passes or played too deep.

(Fig. 2 – from the same matches, but showing the individual passes)

The only game where Joe Cole’s passes took on a more even dispersion, with a relative success in terms of pass completion as well as a more offensive nature was in the home game against Sunderland (Fig. 3). In this game he didn’t seem to pigeonhole himself so much to interchanges deep on the left flank of the Liverpool attack. Instead he helped progress Liverpool attacks better, but he still wasn’t one of the key members of the attack, performing more of a functionary role in a game where Liverpool stuttered and struggled.

(Fig. 3 – Joe Cole’s passing against Sunderland at Anfield)

Defensively, Cole attempted 46 tackles with a 50% success rate and made 7 interceptions, whilst Maxi attempted 25 tackles with a 56% success rate and made 9 interceptions. Although Cole has, seemingly, shown more aggression and engaged in more tackles, his 50% ratio shows that this doesn’t come naturally to him. Rodriguez’s statistics show that he doesn’t get as stuck in as Cole, but is generally more successful and he has made more interceptions than Cole. Rodriguez’s performances have always been filled with tenacity and although his success rate doesn’t necessarily reflect that, his pressing and fighting for possession has been something that has been missing from Cole’s performances.

The other decisive factor is the contribution in terms of scoring goals. In the same criteria of comparison, Joe Cole had 14 shots with 2 on target, whereas Rodriguez has the same number but with 6 on target and 3 goals to his name.

The main, obvious, difference is Rodriguez is a more direct player, whereas Cole is more creative and isn’t ever likely to be somebody who is going to get on the end of crosses or get into good attacking positions. But given Roy Hodgson’s favoured formation is a narrow 4-2-2-2, it’s unclear where Cole could fit in.

Hodgson’s tactics necessitate direct inverted wingers who can link with the forwards – who peel out wide, dragging defenders out of position with them – as well as getting into attacking positions and getting goals. We’ve seen this coming into fruition in recent weeks with Maxi linking up and getting forward while getting goals himself, as well as helping to build attacks.

When Cole has played on the left, his inability to perform this function has hindered any attacking patterns of play that Liverpool develop. As well as this, when Hodgson has experimented with a 4-2-3-1 or a 4-4-1-1 formation, which theoretically should favour Cole more and place him in his natural trequartista position, the team has looked incoherent and Cole hasn’t been able to have any baring on the match whatsoever.

The only alternatives to Joe Cole playing on the left or the team changing shape – which would be detrimental to a side who are finally beginning to function – are either Cole playing as a centre forward or a central midfielder. Neither of these are likely as Cole doesn’t have a strong enough defensive instinct to play in central midfield in a midfield who are often very deep and his natural game will pull him deep and back into midfield should he be utilised as a forward.

The reasons why he was signed are still something of a mystery. Hodgson isn’t the type of manager who will vary his tactical approach enough to necessitate a playmaker who’ll be on a high wage and it is already quite apparent that the left wing role utilised within the formation doesn’t suit his style of play. Of course there’s the sense that the club needed a marquee signing just for the sake of a marquee signing. Now that NESV have swooped in and saved the day (so far) makes it easy to forget what dire straights the club was in during the summer, and the signing of Cole seemed to bring some optimism to the club and also showed certain senior players that the club was serious. That is, of course, a cynic’s view, but so far Cole hasn’t shown anything near what he was capable of in his early career, and given Hodgson’s predilection for defensive football, it isn’t readily apparent where Cole fits in.

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Quote of the moment

Defying belief however, is a market Benitez has cornered quite well. The moment you think Benitez is clueless, he defies it by pulling off a result of majesty, like the one achieved in Madrid. The moment he is hailed a genius, he masterminds toothless surrender to a team going nowhere. In the ongoing Anfield power struggle, just when he was cornered by the firing squad, the Spaniard's demise at Liverpool looking practically assured with the ominous suspension of betting by the bookmakers, he squeezes out through a narrow trapdoor and eliminates Rick Parry. Rafa Benitez is Keyzer Soze.
- Just Football blog: The Curious Beast that is Football 28 Feb 2009