Tuesday, November 7, 2017

On Guardiola's rotation

There seems to be a growing chorus that Man City players are becoming harder and harder to own due to constant rotation from Pep Guardiola. There are two key pieces of information that are useful to assess how damaging rotation can be to a player:
  • The predictability of when the rotation happens (before of after Champions League games, away from home etc),
  • If not selected for the first team, how often do they come on as a sub. If you have a decent bench then - while frustrating - you can deal with players not playing at all. However, if they consistently come off the bench for only 15 minutes or so then you are lowering your odds at success.

Predicting team sheets is not really my forte (nor a particular interest) so we're going to focus on the second point here:

We can see four of the City options have spent time on the bench this season while De Bruyne and Silva have been ever present to date. The calculation for this pair is slightly different as you're getting increased certainty but with lower upside (their 5.8 and 5.5 points per appearance trail their teammates). De Bruyne also comes at a fairly significant premium which personally excludes him from consideration for my own team which I am looking to spread the wealth more evenly, but I can see the appeal of the Belgium's overall package.

Let's look at the other two midfielders first: Sane and Sterling. Each has spent some time on the bench, though Sane is coming off 6 straight starts and has clearly won the confidence of Guardiola despite his young age. The first point to note is how incredible this pair have been to date. For simplicity's sake I am going to continue to use points per game (PPG) numbers here (where as I would usually prefer underlying stats) but I do so with the confidence that their success has been anything but a fluke.

In his 7 starts, Sane has averaged 8.1 PPG, while Sterling slightly eclipses him with 8.2 PPG in his 6 starts. For comparison, the 25% owned Eriksen is averaging 5.7 PPG while his 21% owned teammate Alli is further behind with just 4.9 PPG. Thus, while it is extremely frustrating to have your player on the bench, you need to keep in mind that when they play, they are really operating on another level of production so far this season.

On the subject of being benched, between them, this duo have been benched 7 times, getting some playing time on all but one occasion. With the busy holiday period on the horizon I think these rest numbers could increase somewhat and there might be occasions where these players are completely left out of the days action, but, when they have been on the field for a short cameo, the results have been far from a disaster. In their 7 sub appearances, Sterling and Sane have averaged just 24 minutes but a frankly absurd 4.1 PPG. This number is of course skewed by Sane's brace against Liverpool but still, the pair have delivered returns in 3 of their 7 sub appearances. For reference, that 4.1 PPG compares favorably to how players like Firmino (4.3) or Ozil (3.3) have been performing while playing full matches.

Let's put together a scenario to see how this could play out, using Sterling as an example (who my model likes marginally more but you could replace with Sane without changing the conclusion):

In 10 games over the holidays, Sterling will get 7 starts, 2 sub appearances and will be dropped totally for one game. If he continues to average 7 PPG in those starts and 3 points coming off the bench then he'd accumulate 55 points. We'll then throw in another 2 points for your bench player who will replace him when he misses out. So a total of 57 points for an investment of 13.2m (8.2m for Sterling (or less if you've held him for a while) plus a 5.0m scrub on the bench who just needs to show up).

How else can we piece together such a return? Assuming we could find a player who will start every game over the holidays (doubtful) we're still struggling. Mahrez? 5.1 PPG. Mikhitaryan? 4.7 PPG. The pricier Alli? 4.9 PPG. Eriksen's 5.7 PPG would get you to the 57 points but you've spent 1.5m more money and need him to play every week just to break even. If you played the fixtures well, you might be able to do something with Richarlison and another mid-level option, but then, you can easily afford those players alongside Sterling anyway and it isn't like there is five of them to build a balanced, mid-range midfield (in fact, the list gets extremely limited after Richarlison, maybe Ramsey, I suppose GroƟ).

Let's build this the other way. Let's assume one of the above options can get you 50 points. At 7 points a start and 3 points per sub appearance, Sterling would need just 5 starts and 4 sub appearances to match that output. Then you've got to factor in the huge upside of him playing more due to injuries to others, being more productive off the bench etc, getting extended sub-minutes after City wrap up the game in the first 45 minutes etc.

Up front, one could conclude that the presence of Lukaku, Morata and Kane makes Aguero easier to ignore as they are ready made options who provide a great balance of upside and certainty. But, if you believe in his numbers to data, Aguero is operating on another level, averaging over 9 PPG compared to the ~6 PPG offered by his peers. This means that if Lukaku has continued his 5.8 PPG rate over the full 10 games, 5 games of Aguero plus 5 games of a bench scrub would also come to the same total (5x9 + 5x2 = 55 points). Throw in the fact that most people feel you need two of these elite forwards, and you now need to find two of these options who can match Aguero's prowess if you are going to ignore him.

Jesus is arguably the easiest player of the bunch to ignore given his more modest PPG total (6 in starts, 5.4 overall) and his relative lack of stature in the team.I It's true that City lack great depth up top, but Guardiola has also only deployed both his front men in 4 of 11 fixtures this season, and not since GW5 and one has to feel that Aguero gets slightly more games than his young teammate, all else being equal (Sterling or Sane could even be deployed up top if needed). If you are looking to really spread your money across the team though, I can still see a scenario in which the Brazilian makes sense.

Risks to this analysis
There are, of course, risks to this analysis. The most obvious is probably that City slow down and the gap their players enjoy over their peers is cut. This is definitely possible but I haven't seen many flags in their data to suggest it's on the horizon. You're also not locking anything in either, so if that does happen you are still well placed to jump ship for the other options discussed above. The next risk is that by using such a crude measure (PPG) we are being too simplistic and not accounting for quality of opponent.

However, over a 10 game run you are going to get a reasonable averaging out of opponents and in this particular case, City's 10 game stretch from Dec 3 - Jan 20 is arguably no harder than their fixtures to date, with only three fixtures looking really tough on paper (@MUN, TOT and @LIV although the latter might even be a stretch given the way City massacred Klopp's men in GW4).

My own approach
Personally I am happy to absorb the risk associated by Aguero, Sterling or Sane but will place extra emphasis on sorting out my bench to ride the inevitable benchings. This City side is special and with several mid-priced options available to get access to it, I simply think the opportunity is too good to pass up.

One small side note, is that when selecting my bench I am going to lean more towards certainty of playing time and look to players who might log consistent extra points from clean sheets or bonus points, knowing that they will be called into action but without me being able to choose when to deploy them. This means that players like Kante and Matic will come into play, more so than the likes of Choupo-Moting or Ince who project well but lack the consistent returns to justify the higher price tag given their specific role in my team.


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