Three teams that must…improve their midfield

The summer transfer window is well and truly open, with a number of clubs having already secured high profile signings, while others face the prospect of adjusting to losing their star players.

Having already examined which teams should be prioritising defensive recruits before the beginning of the new season, let’s move on to focus on those teams that based on their performance last season, are most in need of an injection of midfield creativity.

1. Aston Villa

Fans of Aston Villa endured another decidedly mixed season in 2013/14, beginning with a win at the Emirates, but ending with 4-0 and 3-0 defeats the Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur respectively. A 15th place finish, just five points clear of relegation, hardly represented progress for the West Midlands club, and with turmoil behind the scenes now growing, it is hard to be optimistic ahead of the new campaign.

If the Villains are to improve, then increasing their ability to create chances will be vital. Ironically the performances of Ashley Westwood and Fabian Delph have been identified as highlights of an otherwise uninspiring campaign. Yet because Lambert has regularly deployed a counter attacking style while in charge of Aston Villa, their work has overwhelmingly taken place within their own half.

Nevertheless, even taking this approach into account, the chance creation statistics from last season make grim reading. Of the teams that survived in the league last season, only four created fewer chances than Aston Villa. Most worryingly of all, no team (even those relegated) created fewer chances inside the opposition’s penalty box (209 across the season, compared to a league average of 285).

That means that less than half of the meager number of chances Aston Villa did create were within the range that you might reasonably expect a genuine goal scoring chance to result.

Villa fans may hope that new signing Joe Cole can somehow reclaim the form that saw him star for England and Chelsea in seasons goneby and provide renewed purpose to the Villa midfield. But the team’s best hope almost certainly lies in finding a new owner prepared to invest significant resources in new midfield recruits capable of providing strikers Benteke and Kozev with the chances they need to thrive.

2. Newcastle

Puzzled as to why Newcastle have already sprung into action this summer and snapped up not one, but two creative midfielders? Assuming it’s just because they lost Yohan Cabaye to Paris Saint Germain last January and had plenty of money for a replacement? You’d only be partially correct. The truth is that even with Cabaye in their side, last season Alan Pardew endured all kinds of problems getting his midfield and forward line to work together effectively.

A summary look at the stats would indicate the biggest problem on Tyneside was profligacy on behalf of Papiss Cisse, Shola Ameobi and Loic Remy. After all, only Chelsea, Manchester City, Liverpool and Tottenham created more chances than the Magpies last season, as they registered over 580 shots at goal over the course of the campaign. But this paints a hugely misleading picture – the quality of shots was not the biggest problem; rather, the quality of the chances themselves.

Dig deeper into the data, and you find that Newcastle created the lowest proportion of their chances within the opposition penalty area (46%) of all Premier League teams last season. Regulars at St James’ Park will have long grown tired of seeing Hatem Ben Arfa and Moussa Sissoko hammering the ball from distance in the hope something will fly into the top corner. Neither were successful very often, and nor were they ever likely to be.

In recruiting Siem De Jong and Remy Cabella so early in the summer it is clear that Alan Pardew recognises this deficiency in his side’s play, and both stand a very good chance of improving matters across the Newcastle midfield.

3. Tottenham Hotspur

Even by Spurs’ standards, 2013/14 was a year of high drama for the North London club. Losing talisman Gareth Bale, recruiting seven high profile signings, dispensing with manager Andres Villas Boas before Christmas, appointing (and then undermining) Tim Sherwood in his stead, and missing out on Champions League football once again, it’s fair to say there were more downs than ups.

All of which means new manager Mauricio Pochettino has his work cut out for him. Close to the top of his agenda must be improving the kind of chances the Spurs’ midfield creates next season. Like Newcastle, Tottenham had plenty of shots on goal last season but from far too far from goal to realistically worry the opposition goalkeeper.

They had far fewer shots within the opposition penalty box than any of their rivals for a top four berth (294 compared to 332 for Arsenal, 371 for Liverpool, 383 for Chelsea, and a quite incredible 455 for Manchester City). This partially reflects an over reliance on the kind of long range efforts players like Andros Townsend and to a lesser extent Christian Eriksen “specialise” in, as well limited movement in attacking areas to support Adebayor.

Unlike Newcastle, Spurs have yet to make any significant moves in the transfer market this summer. Having spent so much during the last summer, only to see so many players disappoint, no doubt Daniel Levy is at least in part hoping a change of tactical style can sufficiently improve the performances of Erik Lamela, Paulinho and Chadli to reduce the need for further spending on this part of the team in the weeks ahead.

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