Tuesday 27 February 2018

Hitting the Moving Promotion Target.

One inevitable question at this stage of the season is "what's our target to get automatic promotion/get in the playoffs/avoid relegation/get in the Champions League/finish above Arsenal".

The answer is problematical on quite a few levels, not least the phrasing of the initial question.

Does the questioner want a guaranteed outcome or just a target that makes the outcome more likely than not. The former can only be provided for those already leading the race, so a probabilistic reply seems the most suitable.

There's a couple of easy pitfalls to avoid.

For example if you're interested in the chances of a top six finish, the average points won by the sixth placed side isn't that useful. To finish 6th you simply have to narrowly eclipse the points and goal difference won by the 7th placed side.

And with a breakaway big six, such as in the Premier League, the difference between 6th and 7th can be huge.

But the problems don't stop there.

The target for a top 6th finish is most likely different for a side that isn't one of the established big six teams. One of the big six may have a slightly down season, but if you're an outsider looking to break into the top six, your target is likely to be higher than that of a founder member of the big 6.


Even at this late stage of the season, targets are set under the unique circumstances of this particular season, including the intertwined remaining fixture list played out by teams of varying underlying abilities.

The current points target at which Wolves becomes more likely than not to gain automatic promotion from the Championship will be different than Fulham's target.

An inferior Fulham team has to overhaul at least three teams currently ahead of them in the table, without being caught by opponents below them, over a fixture list that includes just one immediate rival.

In contrast, Wolves, the best team in the division, can allow one side to overhaul them, whilst playing out a fixture list that includes three (barely) realistic promotion rivals, giving the Old Gold the opportunity to reduce the points gathering potential of Villa, Cardiff and Derby...or the chasing trio the chance to cut into Wolves' lead.

In short, everyone's running their own unique race, with different challenges and different abilities.

Fulham could get promoted automatically with just 83 points, but in 89% of the occasions they reach exactly 83 points it is insufficient to win that prize.

If Wolves disappointingly win just 83 points, they still go up automatically in 66% of the occasions when they end with this final total.

Two identical final totals, but different probabilistic outcomes for the two sides.

If you want a Fulham points target where automatic promotion becomes more likely than not, it's currently 87 points.

As we've seen for Wolves their "breakeven" points tally is just 83 points and if you want virtual certainty of bringing Premier League football back to Molineux the target to aim for is 90.

Even better news for Wolves is that they get at least 83 points in 3999 out of every 4000 league simulations and at least 90 in 95% of trials.

Here's the rest of the "better than evens" targets for the main contenders for promotion or demotion in the Championship.

Sunday 25 February 2018

Passive & Aggressive Defensive Teams

One of the major drawbacks in quoting counting statistics in football is the varied time of possession enjoyed by teams.

I first wrote about this nearly seven years ago here when describing Stoke's incredibly disciplined approach to defending once you factored in the inordinate amount of time they spent doing it under Tony Pulis in the early days of their soon to be ending Premier League jaunt.

Defensive statistics have always been blighted by failing to account for opportunity.

It is impossible for a Manchester City defender to accumulate the volume of defensive actions made by say a WBA defender, simply because the new champions are only out of possession for around 30% of a typical game and that game only has around 58 minutes when the ball is in play.

WBA, by contrast are averaging just 40% of the total possession and ceding ~60% to the opposition.

Before we can make any meaningful descriptive attempt at a side's defensive set up, we need to make some kind of attempt to account for the unequal range of possession for each team and the amount of time that the ball spends on the pitch rather than in the stands.

We can also attempt to define where on the field a side is trying to dispossess their opponents.

Some teams are noted for the desire to press opponents higher up the pitch to create a turnover or slow down a developing attack, whereas others are more content to lie deep and only actively engage an opponent once they venture into their final third. 

Vertical distance from your own goal can be slightly misleading. If you challenge an opponent on the centre spot you are slightly closer to your own goal than if the event occurs also on the halfway line, but on the touchline.

All calculations have been made from the point of the challenge to the centre of the defending sides own goalline.

 The table above using Infogol data has counted the number of defensive actions, such as tackles, interceptions and clearances made by each team after 27 games of the current Premier League campaign.

These have been grouped by distance from the event to the centre of that side's own goal. Finally, these event numbers have been standardised to account for the actual time each side has been without the ball and a figure for defensive actions per 10 minutes of opposition possession has been calculated.

For example, Manchester City appears to have by far the least number of active attempts to disrupt or disposes an opponent in 2017/18, only making around 16 such attempts per 10 minutes of opponent possession.

So they appear happy to allow teams to circulate the ball, but they do make their most concerted efforts to intercede between 20 and 40 yards from the City goal.

In contrast, Liverpool are much more aggressive at trying to regain the ball, making over twice as many defensive actions per 10 minutes than City, as well as  engaging opponents almost once a minute at distances of 50 or more yards from Liverpool's own goal.

The final sparkline plot shows, not only the total volume of defensive actions per 10 minutes of opponent possession, but also where a side is most active in engaging their opponent.

A side's own goal is on the left of the plot and volume of actions take place further away from a side's own goal as you move towards the extreme right of the sparkline.

The majority of  the top six teams peak their defensive actions between 30 and 40 yards from goal, whereas the remainder of the league by a majority either chose or are forced to defend between 10 and 20 yards from goal.

The most prominent example of a top six team residing in a relegation threatened defensive mindset is Manchester United.

Thursday 1 February 2018

Manchester City and WBA. The Best in Top Tier History.

The importance of league tables is only absolute after the final game has been played and your side has secured that all important Europa League spot or finished 17th spot or higher.

For the remainder of the time, but particularly just after mid season, it is your side's position relative to their nearest challengers that is most important.

Watford's current 11th may give the illusion of relative safety, but on closer inspection they are only three points above Huddersfield, who are teetering on the brink of the relegation spots in 17th position.

One way to try to quantify your side's current position is to see how close, above or below a side is from the relative mediocrity of the average points won by all sides in the season to date, whilst also accounting for the distribution of points both currently after 25 games and in the past.

Manchester City can rightfully claim to be in the running to become the most dominant title winners in the history of the 20 team top tier.

They are currently 2.56 standard deviations above the current points average per team. Their nearest historical rivals were the Manchester United team of Beckham, Giggs, Keane, Sheringham and the Neville brothers from 2000/01, who were 2.51 SD's above par after 25 games and Chelsea's 2005/06 team (2.50 SD's).

At the bottom, WBA are the "best" 20th placed team ever, being only 1.06 SD's below the average points won by teams so far.

Likewise Swansea and Southampton are the most impressive 19th and 18th placed team, respectively after 25 games.

The unusually distributed nature of the points won by sides in 2017/18 then begins to catch up with those sides whose position implies relative safety, but the proximity of their rivals suggests otherwise.

Newcastle are the second worst 14th placed side in top tier history by this measure, as are Watford in 11th and Burnley in 7th.

Here's the rest of the teams. we've got the strongest bottom four ever in relation to the average points won by a side after 25 games, along with the weakest and most vulnerable mid table teams, again in top tier history.