Survival Sunday: In Defence of Hope

Hard to believe it’s only been a few months since Richmond plunged head first into the adventures of big handsome guy and his little friend, as supporters not-so-affectionately call the tenure of Ted Lasso and his assistant, Coach Beard. So much has changed for the Greyhounds since their arrival, both on and off the pitch. I wish I could say for the better, but staring down the barrel of relegation heading into the final match of the campaign (against Manchester City, no less) is a continuum no club wants to live on. Quite frankly, it’s going to take a happening of monumental proportions for Richmond to survive on Sunday.

And yet, there is hope. First and foremost, Richmond are in control of their destiny, which is more than the two teams below them can say. When the day is done, a result against Man City takes the Dogs clear of the drop zone and keeps them in the promised land for another year. No matter what the gaffer says about the development of his players as humans, fostering a sense of community, and so on, winning does matter, in this case to the tune of about £50m. The club has done well to become a mid-table mainstay, but few clubs can survive a trip to the Championship, and once you go down it can be a long time coming back. Just ask Leeds.

Another reason to believe in the Greyhounds’ survival is, well, they have a genuine chance of survival. The general numbers paint a rather disastrous picture of the difference in quality between the two sides (hang on, we’ll get to the maps!). But if you dig deeper – like really, really far down into the abyss – you can almost make out a Richmond side whose style is problematic for Manchester City. Almost. Maybe.

There’s an old Dutch saying about football that every disadvantage has its advantage. So I thought today, rather than whinge about the mockpocalypse, we’d have a look at how AFC Richmond can take down this legendary Manchester City team by turning their perceived weaknesses into strengths through a combination of extreme discipline and controlled chaos in defence (seriously, so many maps).

Thank you, and sorry in advance.

Richmond and City are polar opposites in nearly every way, and the bridge to victory for the Greyhounds is long and narrow and in desperate need of retrofitting. The past year at Nelson Road has been an odd one, to say the least, marked by the departure of a crusty managerial veteran in favor of peppy upstart Ted Lasso. Expected goals is a tricky way to track changes in management, but it’s useful in this instance for highlighting the way the team has trended over the course of the season.

(All data visualizations courtesy of StatsBomb.)

AFC Richmond xG trend, pre- and post-Lasso

There was an obvious uproar when Ms. Welton sacked Mannion’s longtime manager and pal, though that was more about the incoming appointment than any misconceptions about the team’s quality. Richmond was poor defensively and getting even worse in attack when the change was made. As you can see, those trends have been reversing under Ted Lasso and flipped completely in recent weeks. Results don’t always mirror the data, and in this case Lasso’s side appear to have been hard done by the actual run of play.

Manchester City, on the other hand:


Green is good, I think? So these snapshots are a particularly brutal sight for Richmond fans.

Stylistically, though, this is not going to be as much of a cakewalk for Manchester City as it seems at first glance. Sides like the Greyhounds have historically created a lot of problems for City, who prefer a possession-based approach that allows them to find their rhythm in attack while making their opponent work. The goal for City is to have the ball as much as possible, which requires them to win the ball back as soon as they lose it. Opposing teams possess the ball at their own peril, as City are terrific at winning the ball and countering quickly.

High Press Shots defined as shots within 5 seconds of a turnover

But Richmond are surprisingly confident in who they are under Ted Lasso and play more of a direct old-school style in attack. That’s an extremely useful quality for any team facing Manchester City, especially, who is the second best team in the league at getting high press shots. Richmond don’t try anything risky in the back. They get the ball forward immediately, rather than faff about with it in their own half, as demonstrated by this really intense arrow graph. Most notably, they don’t even consider lateral passes until they’re well into the attacking half of the pitch.

Bless this mess.

By contrast, Manchester City will do almost anything NOT to play a long pass. Below, the sonar shard map (!!) on the left shows the length, direction and quality of the passes Man City make in each zone. It should come as no surprise that they have no qualms playing the ball in any direction from any spot on the field, a tactic that makes them especially tough to defend. The map on the right shows their distribution from the keeper position. His job is essentially to get the ball into play as quickly as possible, with no mandate to move the ball forward.

Well it’s a fucking sonar SHARD map now isn’t it, mate.

By design, this sort of distribution welcomes the high press. Teams that park the bus can be hard to break down in the final third. Manchester City hopes that opposing teams will take the bait and press these short lateral passes in their own third, trusting that the talent in their squad will allow them to comfortably play through stretched opposition. Please remember that I’m only the messenger when I tell you that it pretty much always works.

And I would have expected the same fate for Richmond, as well, until rumours started bubbling out of the dressing room that Roy Kent may have lost the faith of his manager. Early indications are that Kent’s bad run of form (33 turnovers in 9 games!) has finally caught up with him. You can be great and give up an own goal or quietly poor for long stretches without scoring against your own team, but you can’t be both. I’m sure in America he’d dominate and they’d be like “Is this football then?” Not in the Premier League, though.

Harsh, but fair.

For this specific match up, moving Roy Kent to the bench should have a more profound impact on the Greyhounds than simply swapping an unfit snail of a player for someone who’s in form. For everything they lose in sitting their captain, they gain another young, fast midfielder that can cover a lot of ground and defend. They can’t sit deep, try to counter, and expect to win this one. Everyone counts out there on Sunday, and their only hope is a coordinated, swarming bit of chaos. City’s not infallible; they make mistakes in possession, and they have a tendency to be too casual at times. The closer to the goal Richmond can be when they force a mistake, the better their chances are of capitalizing on and converting from those mistakes.

It would be naive to think Richmond can keep City out of the final third for the entire match, though, so unfortunately we’re going to have to address the elephant in the room, the shit in the locker, the swiveling hips in Roy Kent’s nightmares: Jamie fucking Tartt.

Since moving back to Manchester City, Tartt has been on an impressive run. I don’t think anyone expected him to find his way into the starting XI so quickly, but admittedly the lad’s been undeniable. Against West Ham a few weeks back, he completed the match with 10 touches, 2 completed dribbles and a free kick goal in the 89th minute, and he had another brilliant day last weekend. Fine showings for anyone, but it’s particularly telling that he’s already taking free kicks for this Manchester City side.

Richmond can’t expect to stop him, but they can hope to slow him down. For as much as they know about him, Tartt also knows his former Richmond teammates inside out, and he’ll be extra motivated to show them what they gave up on.

Ted Lasso and his staff do know one thing about Tartt that they could try to use to gain an edge, though. For all of Tartt’s gifts – and he’d be the first one to tell you this – he has a famously bad left foot cross. On most teams that wouldn’t be an issue, but Manchester City utilizes a really specific tactical approach in the final third. Let’s go back to that dope ass shard map one more time.

By the Son of Zorn, these shard maps are magnificent!

City’s entire attack revolves around getting their forwards and playmakers into the highlighted spaces inside the 18, just outside the six yard box on the end line. The ball is then cut back to the penalty spot or slipped across the box and bang, goal. It’s devastating and really difficult to defend due to the danger of giving up a penalty to one of City’s crafty ball handlers. They’re like a race car with a custom-built engine, and Jamie Tartt happens to fit seamlessly into the rotary girder. Or pistons? Shockers. Whatever, look, I’m not a “car guy,” I just do the X’s and O’s around here, and what I do know is this:


This is every attacking action since Tartt went to Manchester City. As you can see, he’s been quite a busy little boy. He fills that channel I was just talking about on the right side of the box about as well as they could have dreamed, plus he’s contributing around the top of the box in ways they couldn’t have.

But there’s a comically sad blip on the other side of the six, in the left channel, a little peach guy that Tartt (and City) would rather we didn’t notice or discuss. In all of the attacking action, only once did Tartt find himself running into and receiving the ball on the left side of the goal. Rather than stick to the plan and cut the ball back across the box, Tartt opted to take an off-balance shot that trickled into the keeper’s arms. Or maybe it was just a hilariously errant cross because his left foot cross is shit? Either way, it should come as no surprise that he was benched moments later.

Richmond’s plan on Sunday needs to limit these spaces for Tartt. Overload the side, if that’s what it takes, force him to wander to the left side of the pitch in search of more space. It’s imperfect, but the numbers don’t lie with him, at least not as he fits into this City team. If the Greyhounds can drive him to make a few mistakes and start venturing outside City’s system, Tartt will disrupt what his team is trying to accomplish and possibly even get himself benched in the process. For Richmond, that would be a checkmate, mate.

Oh, one more thing: Don’t foul him around the box because he’ll almost certainly score.

This campaign has been a rollercoaster ride for both the club and the supporters. Now we find out what Ted Lasso and his team are made of. If they can stay disciplined and aggressive in defence, coordinated chaos, they’ll have a real shot to survive relegation. But there’s no more time to procrastinate. The Greyhounds need to leave it all out on the field if they want to go out like Willie Nelson – on a high. Hopefully, Lasso has something more potent up his sleeve than barbecue sauce. Still, with that being said, just in case it actually works…

Barbecue sauce.

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