Tuesday 31 December 2013

The Christmas Number One.

Sir Alex Ferguson often made the point that the race to win the Premiership title only really starts around the turn of the year, when about half of the 38 games have been completed and the true front runners have begun to put some distance between themselves the very best of the rest. A couple of media sources took a much more dogmatic reading of the post Christmas table, by pointing out that the last four table toppers on Christmas Day also occupied top spot in May.

This year's Christmas number one was Liverpool, whom clung on to the prized top spot by the finest of margins following Arsenal's dour 0-0 pre-Christmas Monday night draw with Chelsea. Only goal difference separated the top two, affluent Manchester City lay a point further back in third and just another single point further back found both Chelsea and Everton. So the simplistic predictive power of the Christmas number one, alluded to in the Daily Mail is apparently going to be sorely tested this season.

Being top of the league at any time outside of the very early weeks of the season is of course no mean feat. Liverpool are performing consistently at a higher level than they have managed in recent seasons, but the close proximity of a raft of talented challengers, allied to the upcoming transfer window and the ever present threat of injury and suspension, makes their potential crowning in May far from certain.

The flaws present in a naive statistic, such as the ultimate fate of Christmas table toppers is easily demonstrated. 17 matches can see front runners over perform and chasing sides fail to reap their just rewards. League position also tells you nothing about how dominant the leaders are in relation to their challengers and a trend that is quoted over just a four year timescale almost certainly failed to "predict" the league champions reliably in seasons previous to 2009-10.

Inevitably, if we ignore the chosen selective cutoff point and look back one more season to 2008-09, the leaders on Christmas Day that year, coincidentally, also Liverpool, only finished 2nd in May. Arsenal slipped to 3rd in 2007-08 and there then followed a run of three season where the leaders held on to completion. From  2003-04 to the inception of the 20 team Premiership, eight sides failed to maintain top spot, with only Manchester United in 2000-01 honouring this implied trend during the early years of the EPL.

Overall less than half of the sides that are top at Christmas (8/18) are also to in May. Four sides that were placed 2nd went on to lift the title, a similar number of 3rd placed teams and a single 4th placed side coupled with a single team placed 5th or lower before ultimately rising to the top completes the Christmas record.

So despite the inevitable temptation to create certainty and cast iron cause and effect through selectively chosen outcomes, there does appear to be some benefit from enjoying Christmas from the top of the tree, but this needs to be couched in terms of probability and expectation, rather than small sample certainty.

One way to add some context to league positions is to convert the rate at which sides have accumulated points into standard scores, essentially measuring how far from the league average a side's achievements have strayed.

Team. Year. Position at Christmas. Points per Game as a Standard Score. Final Position.
Liverpool. 2013-14 1 1.45 2
Manchester United. 2012-13 1 2.12 1
Manchester City. 2011-12 1 2.08 1
Manchester United. 2010-11 1 2.17 1
Chelsea. 2009-10 1 1.94 1
Liverpool. 2008-09 1 1.96 2
Arsenal 2007-08 1 1.78 3
Manchester United. 2006-07 1 2.24 1
Chelsea. 2005-06 1 2.30 1
Chelsea. 2004-05 1 2.08 1
Manchester United. 2003-04 1 2.12 3
Arsenal. 2002-03 1 1.75 2
Newcastle United. 2001-02 1 1.79 4
Manchester United. 2000-01 1 2.15 1
Leeds United. 1999-00 1 1.67 3
Aston Villa. 1998-99 1 1.77 6
Manchester United. 1997-98 1 2.10 2
Liverpool. 1996-97 1 1.53 4
Newcastle United. 1995-96 1 2.18 2

The larger the standard score, the more dominant a side has been when measured against the league as a whole. And while an impressive score doesn't guarantee that they will have also left most of their championship challengers well behind, it does make a raft of close pursuers less likely.

Liverpool's 2013-14 figure is the least impressive recorded in the history of a 20 team Premiership and visually from the table shown above, the lower the Christmas standard score achieved by the leaders, the less likely they appear to be able to carry their pre Christmas success into May. Liverpool last topped the mid season table with a similarly poor standard score back in 1996-97, when four teams, all with games in hand lay within six points of them and they ultimately fell back to finish fourth.

A more formal relationship between the standard score of the Christmas leaders and their final finishing position gave Liverpool around a 16% chance of lifting the title based solely on the historical precedents of previous EPL seasons. Well in line with the odds of 6.0 being quoted about them on Christmas Sir Alex says and the bookmakers also recognise "the 2013-14 race starts now".

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