- Chelsea just reported a £70.9M loss.
- Chelsea has had the most expensive squad transfer cost eight years running.
- Chelsea just bought Fernando Torres for £70.9M and David Luiz for £25M.
- Apparently Manchester City may be ready to exceed Chelsea's record loss of £147M.
Monday, January 31, 2011
Sunday, January 30, 2011
Note: This the third and final post in a several part series that I have written about MLS's playoff structure and how it penalizes successful teams.
In my first two posts in this series I highlighted the effects of letting too many teams into the MLS playoffs and the resultant penalty good teams pay in the playoffs by playing a greater number of games during the regular season via domestic and international competitions. In this post I will focus on solutions to these problems. I use the byline "Making the Best of a Bad Situation" in this blog post's title because we all know that Don Garber and MLS will not ditch a playoff format - they are (mistakenly) wedded to the idea that US soccer fans want a league that is eventually the size of the NFL and requires a playoff format to determine its champion. So, after listing my ideal solution, I will spend time exploring how the 2011 playoffs could be formatted to make the best of the already announced 10 team playoff field. I will then move on to how future seasons might benefit from a reduced number of playoff teams and modified formats.
The Ideal Solution
Before I delve into making the best of the poor hand dealt to us by MLS, I would like to lay out what I envision would be the ideal format for determining MLS championships.
- Limit MLS to 20 teams: This preserves the ability to run a balanced schedule. Perhaps I am writing from a bit of personal interest, but a balanced home-and-away schedule is the most fair to the teams and is great at providing statistical insight. Each team gets to play every other one twice, and home pitch advantage is effectively wiped out. Such a format is critical in delivering my second recommendation.
- Play a top-of-the-table championship format: After 38 matches, we would truly understand who was the best overall team throughout the season. No upsets allowing eighth seeded teams to knock out the number one seed. No poor form for half to two-thirds of season that is bailed out by a hot run at the end of the season. There's a reason the rest of the world runs such a format - it provides stability to the teams and supporters and justly rewards good long term performance.
- Reform CCL qualification: If (2) is realized, the US Open Cup then becomes the major domestic knock-out tournament just like most other national tournaments. Make the US Open Cup championship worth something - make it the automatically qualifier for CCL group play along with the MLS top-of-the-table champions. To add drama and competition to the MLS single table format, make the second place team the play-in for CCL. Overall, this would provide greater incentive for winning the US Open Cup and ensure our CCL teams truly are the best MLS has to offer.
- Implement promotion and relegation: This system works in nearly every other soccer nation. For those who worry about the health of MLS and soccer in the US, they should realize that attendance at matches in the US rival those found in top leagues outside of England, Germany, and Spain. What is holding back growth in the US is MLS's obscene franchise system and associated fees. Such high barriers to entry stifle the development of the lower tiers of the US soccer pyramid, and are not found in other parts of the world. When soccer rich cities like St. Louis can't field a second tier professional team and the entire second tier is at risk of losing its sanction because of financial difficulties, it's clear something has to change. Simply put, the closed market, single entity concept is holding back the development of the professional game and our national team. It's a hurdle not found in other countries, where teams who work their butts off at lower levels earn the just reward of promotion without having to pay the cartel and extra entry fee.
So if the ideal solution is not a realistic one, how can we make the best of a bad single entity playoff solution? How can a full season's effort be rewarded come playoff time? The answer is two fold - one solution for the 2011 season that will see 10 playoff teams, and another for subsequent seasons where the number of playoff teams is still undetermined.
Recommendations for 2011
Given that MLS has indicated they will break 10 of the 19 teams to the playoffs for the 2011 season, how can the as-yet-undefined format be defined so as to reward regular season play and not make it an afterthought as it currently is regarded? Here are a few suggestions.
- Give the top six finishers a bye: If we want to encourage teams to compete for playoff position from top to bottom, we need to give them a just reward for their successful efforts. Currently, there is no real advantage to being a top seed. Giving seeds 1 through 6 a bye, which would effectively give them two weeks between their final regular season match and their first playoff match, would give them much needed rest after a grueling regular season, US Open Cup, and CCL group play.
- Make seeds 7 through 10 play a two-leg first round: Making the lower seeds play two extra games will help level the playing field when it comes to game differential. Such an approach would have moved 5 of the 12 series from 2003-2010 that had a game differential of four or more to series with a game differential of three or less - crossing to the right side of the magical four game differential I highlighted in my last post in this series. I'd also make them play it on a weekend/weekday swing, which would essentially make the winner of the series play three games in seven days when the second round match was factored in. Meanwhile, the team they faced would be coming off two weeks rest.
- Make away goals count for more than home goals in the first round: Nearly every other two-leg knockout round competition uses this rule. For some unexplainable reason, MLS does not. Such a change would reward risk taking by away sides, and recognize the inherent difficulty in scoring goals away from home. It would also likely help minimize the number of opening round matches that went to overtime and PK's in the second match.
- Re-seed after every round: Implicit in this suggestion is the request to forget about conferences once the playoffs start. The reward for finishing with the best overall point total (or tie breaker) should be that that the highest seeded team host the "weakest" team each round. Higher seeded teams shouldn't be forced to travel or endure any hardships come playoff time if they've worked their rears off for 34+ matches. This will also help to eliminate MLS's current crossover system that has the propensity to hurt top performers. Case in point: in 2010 the Western Conference took six of the available eight playoff spots, yet the bottom two teams crossed over to play the two Eastern Conference teams, both of which had lower point totals than the top two teams in the Western Conference
- Take advantage of MLS's superior home field advantage: As Scorecasting has shown, MLS teams have the greatest home field advantage of any US sports league or major soccer league world wide. Let's put that to good use and provide greater rewards to superior regular season performance. MLS should not only re-seed the matchups every round, but they should also have the higher of the two MLS Cup participants host the championship match. Therefore, there truly is a benefit to winning the Supporters' Shield - controlling one's own destiny as to where matches are played all the way through the playoffs.
A New Playoff Format for 2012 and Beyond
By 2012 MLS will have its 19th franchise (Montreal), unbalanced conferences, and possibly an unbalanced schedule again. Everyone fully expects the league to expand further, not stopping at the 20 teams found in most other domestic leagues. How should their playoff format change to match these changes and improve the quality of the playoffs?
- Run a single table, and break only the top six teams to the playoffs: With Montreal in the league, there will be no way to balance the conferences. This would be a perfect opportunity for the league to convert to a single table. Limiting the playoffs to the top six will also greatly improve the quality of teams that make it in. The regression equations developed in the first post in this series indicate a team in the top six would need to earn 51.5% of the available points and have a goal differential of nearly 8 - both are massive improvements over the numbers required since 2005. It would also lower the percentage of teams that make the playoffs to 31%, making it the second lowest percentage of the US professional leagues profiled in my first post.
- Use the same suggested play-in format from 2011 for seeds 3 through 6: Again, it will cut down on game differential in the second round, provide greater incentive for finishing in the top two via an extra week of rest, and will ensure away goals count for more.
- Re-seed for the semifinals just like 2011, and have the higher seed host MLS Cup: Give good teams every advantage they deserve for sustained quality throughout the regular season.
- Reform CCL qualification along the lines of (3) in the "Ideal Solution" section of this post.
It's clear that MLS is intent on keeping a playoff format to determine their champion, as they mistakenly believe that US soccer fans and fans of other sports that they are trying to attract want an Americanized version of the world's game. If this is the case, there is a right way and a wrong way to implement a playoff system. Right now, MLS is going about it the wrong way. They are letting way too many teams into the playoffs, and the resultant chaos turns fans off as there seems to be absolutely zero reward for an entire season of hard work. The wide open playoff format, combined with commitments outside of MLS, has produced little predictability from one season to the next. If MLS is to insist on having a playoff format, it is my hope that they adopt a number of the proposals made above. Restricting the number of overall participants, and forcing lower seeds to play more games in the playoffs, will improve the chances of higher seeds making it through to the MLS Cup and hopefully provide some predictability to the current chaos that is the MLS Playoffs.
Friday, January 28, 2011
Here are some of my favorite stories from this week, in no particular order. Have a wonderful FA Cup weekend!
- The Footiebusiness blog highlights MLS franchises' use of social media mass coupon services like Groupon. While it provides an interesting marketing opportunity for a growing league like MLS, coupons always indicate a product that can't be sold at its original asking price. Personally, it's great to support a club that doesn't need such gimmicks to fill its stadium.
- Soccer By the Numbers takes on the thorny question of player behavior relative to their contract and either demanding or sabotaging a transfer.
- Two Footed Tackle notes that English fans may find an unlikely ally in their quest to reform of the English game: the Conservative Party.
- In Bed With Maradona examines the effects of the commoditization of English soccer.
- Twohundredpercent looks at a secret back room deal that was on the table if England had won the right to host the 2018 World Cup. If you not from England, and especially if you're from the US, this post provides an interesting cultural comparison between television broadcast rights and who should be able to own them.
- Major League Soccer Talk takes note of the troubles in the second tier of US soccer, both on a league and a club basis. Contrary to popular thought, I would contend that a proper promotion/relegation regime would actually provide greater stability and increase soccer-specific stadium use in the country. A good interplay of quality teams between the two tiers, along with increased opportunity for teams to have a shot at MLS's membership without paying the $30M to $40M franchise fee, would help grow genuine, and not Americanized, soccer in this country.
Sunday, January 23, 2011
Note: I'm not trying to turn this post into a he said/he said affair, but context is very important. I encourage the reader to re-read my post here (although leave the comments for later), then go to this site to get some background on the comments on my post, and then read those comments. Then come back to this post to read my (lengthy) clarification.
After reading the reaction to my last post I could only think of a phrase my wife routinely uses:
"Impact is very different than intent."I did not intend to insult all bloggers who provide free content by insinuating they do not make quality posts, but clearly that is how a number of them took it. Clearly, I missed the mark and have a bit of explaining to do. This post is an attempt to do so.
Obviously, I am a big fan of Paul Tompkins, his site, and his approach he takes as an author of numerous books. That last post was an attempt to explain to my readers why they wouldn't be able to view my latest material mixed in with a bit of brown nosing. It was also a statement of support in that I feel Tomkins' site is well worth the money I spend every month even though I could be getting the content for free. The topics I explore in my blog and his are borderline academic - they are very deep in numbers and often take a substantial amount of mathematical calculation and numerical research. That's not to say other blog authors don't work harder to generate their content - I am sure many do. I am more making a differentiation on the type of content and not the work rate. The basis of my posts lately - Tomkins' Pay As You Play and the associated Transfer Price Index database - is something I clearly feel would not be put together by someone unless they were getting some sort of remuneration. Thus, when I focus on "quality" I am also focusing on a certain type of soccer blogging, one heavily dependent upon published material that demands payment to justify the research in the first place. It's the type of quality that turns out some of my favorite books - Soccernomics, Gaming the World, Soccer Against the Enemy, Brilliant Orange, and (of course) Pay As You Play. Such endeavors require compensation, especially if the book is parlayed into blog content.
Given that mindset, I never meant to insult other bloggers who choose to give their content away for free. I am a huge fan of the ever expanding and improving quality of soccer blogs - free or not. My Google Reader account is populated by the likes of Zonal Marking, The Swiss Ramble, and a number of other free soccer blogs that I read on a daily basis. I subscribe to them because they are high quality, they are free, and they offer a better value than newspaper analysis. If any soccer market understands the paucity of quality "mainstream journalism" when it comes to soccer and the need for supporter/fan fueled analysis via blogs, it's those of us in the United States. There may be no more underserved fan base than us - both in the quality of our professional game and its coverage. So, my intent was not to offend free bloggers and I apologize. I could have chosen my words a bit more carefully to make my advocacy for Tomkins' site a bit more narrow, and possibly avoided the confusion I caused.
At the same time, my reading of the Two Hundred Percent message board suggests I may have inadvertently been caught up in a long existing dispute. Clearly, the comments on that thread indicate an existing dislike for Paul Tomkins and those who advocate for pay walls, which the authors believe is a (real or perceived) slight of their free content. The choice to charge or not to charge for content is a personal one, but apparently it is a controversial one. Clearly, there is a philosophical difference between Paul and those on the message board:
Putting the ridiculousness of that article aside, I would like to go on record as saying I have no beef with Tomkins or the author of the article. Their modus operandi is theirs to choose. So long as they don't decide to drag the whole football blogging community down, which they seem intent on doing so.I can't help but feel that those who took issue with my last post were taking me a bit out of context and looking for a fight. The original link on the Two Hundred Percent message board came from someone who saw Paul retweet my post and referred to him as the "Professor of Paywalls" - surely not out of endearment. Most of the quotes he offered up from my piece were, I feel, totally out of context.
In terms of charging for content though, I really don't see the point. Sure, it would be nice to make money out of it, but that's not why I do it.
The most out-of-context quote had to have been the following.
My original post:
For too long we've been getting blogs, newspapers, and all kinds of other information for free on the internet. Frankly, much of the content probably wasn't worth much so free was probably the right price for it. That's not the case with The Tomkins Times - you will struggle to find a better value for your hard earned dollar (or quid).
The quoted text and commentary from Two Hundred Percent:
Frankly, much of the content (of football writing on the internet) probably wasn't worth much so free was probably the right price for it.Clearly, I was not indicting all "football writing on the internet" - I was making a general comment on the philosophy that everything on the internet should be free, a subset of which is soccer related. As Paul pointed out in the comments in my original post, it's a viewpoint we both share and one that I believe isn't incompatible with finding good free and paid content on the web.
Overall, this has been a teachable moment for me. The power of words is clear, especially if unintended. The impact is what matters. I will freely admit that I may never read Les Rosbifs because its subject matter does not interest me personally. Nor do I see myself subscribing to a number of the non-Premiership blogs highlighted by Lanterne Rouge because I have limited to no ability to view any of the lower levels of the English soccer pyramid here in the US. But that doesn't mean they're low quality. On the contrary, the reaction of Gav clearly indicates his passion for his (and others) blogs and their product. My intention was never to offend, but rather to advocate for a concept of paying for good content when you find it. I reward great content with my money when I see it - whether it's the engineering in my diesel powered Jetta, the great beer through my friend's brewery, or a fellow blogger who's given me a bigger platform than I could have ever asked for.
I hope those who commented on my previous post accept my sincere apology in leaving them with the impression that I felt "free blog = crap". That was never my intention.
Perhaps, more than anything, this will reinforce why I stick to numbers and let them do most of the talking.
Friday, January 21, 2011
I am going to try and start a new, regular post that summarizes my favorite articles and blog posts that I came across the previous week. They may provide a less numerical look at soccer, but I hope you find them insightful nonetheless.
- ESPN makes a case that I believe is true: Arsenal is on track to end their title drought because they finally have the Four (offensive) Horsemen they've always wanted - Walcott, Nasri, Fabregas, and van Persie.
- 7AM Kickoff makes a wonderful, and self serving, case why ManU's track record of being "The Drawables" will eventually lead to a loss and the The Invincibles record remaining intact.
- Soccer By The Numbers has some great analysis on defensive capabilities of EPL teams. Not surprisingly, Arsenal does not rank well.
- Swiss Ramble has an in-depth and lengthy piece on the financial state of Birmingham City Football Club.
- Footiebusiness has two great posts: one on what TV time is worth in various MLS markets, and another on how MLS jersey sponsorships compare to ones found in the EPL.
Thursday, January 20, 2011
My latest post analyzing transfer costs and their impact on the on table position in the English Premier League can be found here (the first two posts can be found here and here).
Please note that my latest post is part of The Tomkins Times site that is behind a pay wall. I know that for many readers this may present some consternation, but I think this is a good sign. Let me explain.
First, the analysis at The Tomkins Times is well worth the £3.50 (~$6) per month that a subscriber pays. Paul Tomkins, the site's main author and sole editor, provides two to three wonderfully insightful articles a week. We're not talking about throw-away posts full of stats or rumors you've heard elsewhere and were compiled in 10 minutes. We're talking about book author (six of them, in fact) quality posts that provide insight you won't find anywhere else. Paul has the rare combination of passionate supporter for his Liverpool Football Club and level-headed statto so as to approach analysis and commentary fairly. Paul is an authority on Liverpool specifically and the English game in general. If you don't believe me, just know that Liverpool's new ownership sat down for tea with him immediately after they purchased the team.
Second, Paul's work of building the Times' brand over the last several years has enabled the site to assemble an awesome cadre of supporting writers. Bloggers, financial analysts, statisticians, and supporters of various clubs with special insights write posts for the Times every week. With such a wide variety of authors, a complete picture of Liverpool and the state of the Premier League can be had by any subscriber. I am proud to be a part of that group, and can vouch that the supporting writers alone are worth the subscription fee.
Third, the only way to comment on a posting is to be a subscriber. This ensures that comments by readers are top notch. No trolls. No jerks looking to stir up the pot for no other reason than to create controversy. Just committed individuals eager to learn from each other and build each other up. A few commenters have "leveled up" into the roll of original content contributors by authoring posts themselves. Meanwhile, Paul knows that subscribers are his lifeblood and engages each of their questions, comments, and concerns. It all adds up to genuine interaction that other blogs wish they had.
Fourth, this is Paul's method of making a living. Such analysis isn't free, and the amount of time required of the author is monumental. Writing is Paul's full time job. I put my money where my mouth is, and gladly pay the subscriber fee each month even though some might argue I should not as I am a contributor. I don't ask for any compensation myself, so I won't get any kickback if you do subscribe.
I just know it's a wonderful site, and one of the most insightful I've read in a long time. For too long we've been getting blogs, newspapers, and all kinds of other information for free on the internet. Frankly, much of the content probably wasn't worth much so free was probably the right price for it. That's not the case with The Tomkins Times - you will struggle to find a better value for your hard earned dollar (or quid).
You don't have to take my word for it though - you can listen to SoccerLens who awarded Paul's site with their Editor's Pick for best club fansite. Or take the word of more than 2000 monthly subscribers. Either way, know that this is a successful implementation of a pay wall, and not some multinational news organization seeking to charge you today for what they were giving away for free yesterday.
Tuesday, January 18, 2011
I am reading a great book entitled Gaming the World: How Sports are Reshaping Global Politics and Culture whose central theme is that global sports culture simultaneously breaks down international barriers and intensifies local identities. Nowhere is this more present than global soccer culture. And yet, the globalized nature of soccer also presents some with nativist feelings. This story, linked via a Fox Soccer tweet, concludes:
A study of 534 top-tier European football clubs says more foreign players are being used, causing homegrown youngsters to be neglected.Neglected is such a strong, pejorative term. It gives one the idea that these homegrown players are just languishing on the sidelines, never getting any playing time and their desire to play soccer withering with each passing day. Then a few sentences later we find this explanation:
Nearly half of top-tier players across 36 countries have transferred internationally at least once.The reality is that there are two halves to this story. For every door closed on a homegrown player's squad, there are 533 other top tier European teams that have open doors and even more outside of UEFA. This reality plays out in the EPL, and I've worked with the Transfer Price Index to prove it's been accelerating since the Boseman ruling. If Fox Soccer wants to argue that we need to go back to a time when soccer players rights to free and fair wages and contracts were being violated, they're free to make that argument. I would point out that teams were being far more neglectful in blocking players rights than they are in not guaranteeing first team spots for homegrown players. Would Robin Van Persie have been better served if he had just stayed at Feyenoord instead of testing his wares at the global club that is Arsenal (financially or skill-wise)? That's the logic extended by an article that theorizes that "home grown players are being neglected".
Ultimately, the EPL and other UEFA leagues are demonstrating what I observed in the blog post that commented on the post-Bosman transfer behavior:
In many regards, the Premier League is a microcosm of the increasingly globalized world it operates within: greater international ownership and investment, greater employee mobility, fewer employees staying with a single firm from “graduation” to retirement, and increased dominance by a few brands within the marketplace.I wouldn't be an Arsenal fan if I couldn't see them on TV nearly every week. I wouldn't even be aware of them. They wouldn't be on US TV if they weren't a global enterprise, in a global league, constantly displaying the talents of the best players in the globe. The reality is that soccer is a global business, and the Inter Milan Champions League winner referenced in the Fox Soccer story is a perfect example of this.
Nativism is often a sick nostalgia that is in reaction to a "foreign" cultural presence. I call it a sick nostalgia, because it often remembers history as better than it was. Does any fan of the EPL, outside of die-hard England-first fans, seriously believe that the best years of the league are in the older stadiums, less dynamic teams, and English-centric rosters of yesteryear?
If the concern is that a lack of homegrown players will kill the youth game, I would encourage anyone to look at the youth game in the United States where our professional league has only been in existence for 15 years. In compiling the advantages that soccer has in the global sports arena, the authors of Gaming the World provide the perfect response to this line of thought:
To this day, soccer never developed the numerical intricacies and statistical measures that became essential to a proper understanding of cricket and baseball, and to a lesser extent football and the rugby games. There are no box scores in soccer. Virtually any person in any culture can quickly understand the game's aims and thus its purpose and process.The professional game involves a lot of money, and certainly a lot of statistics - those statistics are the sole reason for this blog. At it's most basic form, however, soccer is just how Gaming the World describes it. Kids everywhere can pick up the game to varying degrees, and there is no shortage of those who dream of a pro career. Those dreams involve Africans coming to America to play for the Sounders, Americans going to England to play in the Merseyside Derby, and French managers starting their international careers in Japan and making themselves a legend at an English club. These players and managers dream internationally because the game is international. There is no putting the genie back in the bottle, and the soccer world is better for it.
Friday, January 14, 2011
With a little over half of the EPL season complete and nearly half of the January transfer window closed, it's worth taking a look back at how the table has fallen out and identify teams that are over and under performing against various metrics.
All data in this post was accurate as of December 28th, 2010 when a majority of the teams in the league had played nineteen or more matches (halfway towards each team's 38 total matches). To account for the different number of matches played by December 28th, each team's goal differential and point total were scaled up according to the number of games they had played to a projected value at season's end. The table was then resorted in descending order, first by points and then by goal differential. This produced a table that showed projected finish based upon performance through December 28th.
There are five metrics used to judge team performance within the table - four of them relate to table position, and the fifth relates to points accumulated. Each metric represents the results of a regression analysis that was performed on table position and that metric , or points and goal differential in the case of the fifth metric. Each metric is color coded red if the team is under performing versus that metric, green if it is over performing, and no color coding if it is performing as expected.
A quick note must be made regarding how over and under performing is determined. A post from last April
In this analysis the 50% PI is used to determine under and over performance to each metric. Data that falls within the bounds of the 50% PI is considered expected noise around the regression line and equation - teams are expected to fall within these bounds given their performance versus the metric. Teams that fall outside of the 50% PI, high or low, are over or under performing. The direction of the relationship between the two variables determines whether falling above or below indicates over or under performance - positively correlated variables (points vs. GD) require falling above the 50% PI for over performance, while negatively correlated variables (table position vs. all variables) require falling below the 50% PI. The reverse conditions are true for under performance.
The metrics used within the table are:
- MSq£: This metric is defined as multiple of the league average squad cost as defined by the Transfer Price Index
. The concept of this metric and its relationship to table position has been covered extensively here .
- M£XI: This metric is similar to MSq£, but it measures the multiple of league average starting XI cost. A comparison to MSq£ is made here, and a full discussion of its relationship to table position will be explored in future blog posts. All data for this metric has been compiled on a match-by-match basis by Graeme Riley, to whom I am deeply indebted.
- Pts: Using the entire 18 season history of the EPL, a regression equation to predict table position based upon projected season points has been developed.
- GD: Like points, EPL historical data is used to create a regression equation to describe the relationship between table position and goal differential.
- Pts vs. GD: The fifth metric is used to judge the projected number of points a team will acquire versus their projected goal differential for the season based upon eighteen seasons of EPL data.
The Mid-Season Table and Team Performance
The table below represents where each team would finish if they held their from they had demonstrated through December 28th (click to enlarge).
- The table clearly demonstrates the superior performance of Manchester United versus the rest of the league, and the real, large gap between Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur at the mid-point of the season.
- While Manchester United has a health six point lead on Arsenal on December 28th, they are on track to have the fifth lowest point total of a champion in the 19 year history of the EPL. Indeed, this is confirmed statistically via their over performance in the third metric, table position versus points.
- While Manchester City and Chelsea have nearly equal MSq£ numbers, Chelsea has a far higher M£XI number. In fact, Chelsea has the biggest jump from their predicted finish based upon squad cost to the predicted finish based upon starting XI. Their table position relative to their starting XI cost demonstrates just how much they are under performing.
- While one might argue both Manchester teams are unfairly penalized by the regression model's over prediction of the importance of transfer costs
- Chelsea and Aston Villa are clearly under performing relative to their costs of their transfers. In the case of Chelsea, they're likely saddled with the huge costs of aging players that aren't delivering like they used to. Aston Villa must look to make some quick moves in the transfer market and get better performance out of their squad cost that should have them somewhere between 7th and 13th in the team.
- Arsenal and Sunderland are the only teams with a significant backslide in predicted finish when moving from the total squad cost to the average starting XI cost.
- Other than the three teams at the bottom of the table, Chelsea under performs the most by failing to meet expectations in four out of five categories.
- While Liverpool were in ninth position at the mid-season point, they sank to twelfth in the table by Week 22 which clearly indicated underachievement versus the MSq£ and M£XI metrics. Combined with their underachievement against their historical norm, it was only a matter of time before Hodgson got sacked.
- Bolton, Everton, Newcastle United, and Birmingham City are the only teams under performing in projected points compared to their projected goal differential. This suggests that either their GD will pick up in the second half if they're to maintain point form, or they will drop more points in the second half s they regress to a point total more fitting their GD.
- Aston Villa's long-term drop from form this season is confirmed by the fact that they're massively under performing in the squad and starting XI metrics, are right where they should be based upon points, and are under performing based upon both goal differential metrics.
The commissioner also said that the conference alignment and playoff format is close to being finalized. And to further intensify the Pacific Northwest rivalry between Seattle, Portland and Vancouver, Garber said MLS is strongly considering a week-long round robin between the clubs -- three regular season matches in a span of a week or so (Van vs. Sea, Sea vs. Port, Port vs. Van).
Wednesday, January 12, 2011
Comparing Econometric Models of the English Premier League: Reconciling the TPI and Soccernomics Data Sets
My latest post using Paul Tomkins' Transfer Price Index has been published. You can find it here, where it compares the TPI to the Soccernomics data set, a summary of the feedback from one of the authors of Soccernomics, as well as .a few new insights related to league composition and performance to the economic models previously studied.
Note: This is the second post of a several part series that I will be writing about MLS’ playoff structure and how it penalizes successful teams. Part one is located here.
In my first post in this series, I explained how MLS’s current playoff structure and generous standards to determine which teams make the playoffs has lead to a number of eighth seeds with losing records that have made it deep into the playoffs (including appearing in two of the last three MLS Cups). In this post, I will explain how the disparity in the number of games played throughout the regular season contributes to the predictable outcome of a first round playoff match, and why it seems to uniquely penalize the higher seeded teams.
Factors In Predicting MLS First Round Playoff Outcomes
Climbing the Ladder had a great post right after the conclusion of the first round of the 2010 playoffs were different factors that had contributed to first round playoff success since 2003 were compared to each other. A snapshot of the table that was developed is shown below.
What was interesting is that fewer games, out of all the factors studied, stands out as the most significant determinant of first round playoff success. This seems a bit unexpected to those versed in how the US game operates, and I will explain why in a bit. The next most significant factor – regular season goal difference – does make a good bit more sense. The less significant coach field is much like the fewer games category - the results are a bit opposed to what our first guess might suggest. As the comments in the original post evolved, it became clear that everyone wanted to focus on the “fewer games played” category. Here’s why.
While MLS plays a balanced schedule in their regular season, their teams have three other types of matches they can play.
- Friendlies: The number of friendlies a team plays is under the direct control of the team management, and varies from team-to-team. Teams may use them as pre-season conditioning or as mid-season revenue generators. I’ve seen both approaches from my hometown team, the Seattle Sounders. Regardless, they demand match preparation and player conditioning, even though the starting XI may get changed from the side that participates in a typical MLS match. While teams somewhat enjoy them, a growing number of fans aren’t. Seattle’s supporters have been so vocal as to create a Twitter hashtag to emphasize their displeasure, which was subsequently picked up by Real Salt Lake. Perhaps the supporters are on to something – if you’re going to lower the chances of the team making it deep into the MLS Cup Playoffs, don’t do it with a meaningless friendly.
- CONCACAF Champions League (CCL): Like every other continental governing body, CONCACAF has a tournament where the best teams from each league play each other to determine which club is the best from that governing body. Winners of the CCL move on to the Club World Cup. While the format for the CCL has changed over the years, it has followed a 4 team-per-group, 6 game balanced-schedule-within-group format since 2008. While the standards for MLS CCL qualification has also changed over time, currently the MLS Cup champion and Supporter’s Shield winner are guaranteed a spot in group play, while the MLS Cup runner up and US Open Cup champion must play a two-legged play-in via the preliminary round. This means MLS CCL participants can play an additional two to eight matches during their MLS regular season, depending on qualification path. As the CCL follows the FIFA calendar, the six games a team may play in the Championship Round of the tournament occur at the beginning of the next MLS season. Thus, if a team qualifies for the Championship Round in one CCL tournament and qualifies for the Preliminary/Group Play stage in another, they may play up to fourteen additional matches in a season.
- US Open Cup: The longest running soccer cup competition in the United States has been contested since 1914. Thirty-two teams from the lower divisions of the American soccer pyramid begin the tournament in June, with eight MLS teams being added to the third round to compete against the eight remaining teams from the lower levels of the pyramid. MLS teams must play four matches in the tournament to win the US Open Cup. MLS assigns its berths in the tournament by giving its top six teams (by points) automatic berths and the remaining teams compete for a berth via a playoff format. Thus, MLS teams can play between four and eight matches in qualification and participation in the US Open Cup.
All of this makes for a pretty compelling case that game differential may play a significant roll in the first round. This seems intuitive – teams that make it deeper into competitions outside of MLS will have played more matches, and fatigue at the end of the long season may take a bigger toll on those teams. Combine fatigue with the wild nature of a playoff, and you have a recipe for the team who has played fewer games to win. This seems a bit unfair, as the only way these teams have played more games is that they finished well the season prior (qualifying for the CCL) and/or have played well in the US Open Cup (in trying to qualify for next season’s CCL). The US soccer landscape already has two knockout style championships, so why does MLS feel the need to add the unpredictability of a third?
Testing the Data Statistically: How Playing Fewer Games Leads To Upsets
All of those observations are just idle speculation if they can’t be backed up by statistics showing the difference in games played actually upending expected results. Interestingly, the statistics present a mixed answer that suggests MLS may just be proceeding down the path of unintended upsets in how their playoff structure interacts with the teams’ other competitions.
The first comparison that was studied was Climbing the Ladder's observation regarding the overall impact o fewer games. In this case, it must be determined if the sample size is large enough (enough playoff games played since 2003) to determine if the observed effect is statistically significant. This entails comparing the expected percentage for overall first round playoff matches (50% chance of winning the series) to the observed percentage for teams that win and have played fewer games throughout the season (67.2%). As my comment in the original Climbing the Ladder post suggests:
Sadly, even the "fewer games" category is not statistically significant when compared to the 50/50 chance most teams have of advancing. Using this site and entering the following values:
p0 = 0.5
p1 = 0.672
1 sided Test
Default alpha and power levels
Yields a sample size of 51. This means this proportion of win percentage would have to be viewed over 51 matches to determine that fewer games was a good predictor vs. a coin flip.
This means that the 32 opening round series played in the last eight seasons and the resultant 67.2% win percentage for teams that played fewer games during the regular season are not significant enough to declare an advantage for such teams. Statistically, such a percentage is technically no better than flipping a coin to determine who moves on to the next round.However, interesting conclusions can be drawn when the focus turns from the overall "fewer/greater number of games" metric and instead look at the impact of the difference in the number of games played. One way to measure this is to look at each series where there was a difference in the total number of games played by each team, and note if the team with fewer games won the series or not. Teams that had fewer games and won are binned as a "correct prediction", while teams that lost while playing fewer games during the regular season are binned as "incorrect predictions". If each bin of predictions is then sorted by ascending goal difference and a (1-CDF) plot is generated (a concept introduced here), the effect of increasing goal difference in predicting the outcome of the first round playoff series is understood. A graph representing this relationship is shown below (click to enlarge).
What becomes immediately clear is that by the time the game differential gets to four, the team with fewer games has nearly a six in seven chance of winning the series. No team who has played six or more games during the regular season has won a first round playoff series. Clearly, three matches or fewer appear to be a statistical toss-up, but a match difference of four or greater greatly favors the team that played those precious fewer matches.
Recall that the MLS Suppoters' Shield and MLS Cup winners receive automatic berths into the CCL. The odds seen in the (1-CDF) plot also play out when we look at these two types of teams that also tend to play a much greater number of games.
The table below summarizes the performance of each Supporter's Shield Winner once they reached the playoffs. Five of the teams played no more or less than two games when compared to their opponents, and this resulted in mixed results for the team that played fewer games. The three series where a team had played four or more games less than their opponent saw that team win the series. The latest occurrence of this is especially illustrative. The 2010 playoffs saw the Los Angeles Galaxy defeat the Seattle Sounders after the Sounders had played two more games than LA in the US Open Cup (in fact, Seattle eliminated LA in that competition) and Seattle played six more games in a poor CCL group play campaign (due to LA failing to win their preliminary round series).
What's even more interesting is studying the performance of MLS Cup winners in their first round playoff matches when defending their title (see table below). Save for LA in 2005, each MLS Cup winner since 2002 has qualified for the playoffs the season after they won the championship. Nearly every one of them lost in the first round, with the Houston Dynamo being the only exception when they successfully defended their championship in 2007. Ironically, Houston would follow up that 2007 campaign with a 2008 campaign that bridged the prior and current CCL format, which meant they set a record for first round game differential (14) that will likely never be equaled. They subsequently lost to New York in the 2008 playoffs.
Ultimately the table confirms what the graph showed. The two first round series that had a game differential of less than 4 were a toss up - one win and one loss. The remaining series all involved game differentials of four or more, and all five ended in favor of the team with fewer games played. With the latest format for the CCL, where MLS Cup winners automatically qualify for six matches of group play rather than a home-away elimination format as in years past, we've likely seen the end of any dynastic teams like those in the first decade of MLS.
The predictability of outcome of first round series with a game differential of four or more does not stop there. Of greater concern is the alignment of such predictability with the likelihood of an upset. Each of the thirty-two first round matches was categorized as an upset if the lower seeded team won (as indicated by conference seeds one through four, regardless of whether or not a team was moved from one conference to the other under MLS's odd playoff seeding rules). The table below shows the results of each first round playoff series, categorized by whether or not an upset occurred and binned according to the difference in the number of games played.
Clearly, as the game differential increases the likelihood of an upset increases. If a comparison is made between the ratio of upsets in the series with a game differential of four or greater versus the rest of the series, one finds that there is insufficient sample size to determine that the difference is statistically significant. A further breakdown of the matches with a game differential of four or more also yields the table below.
What is interesting is that matches with a game differential of four or more have picked up significantly since the change in the CCL group play format in 2008. In fact, using this calculator to make a comparison of the proportions of the table above shows that a statistically significant difference in the two eras exists if one more series were played in each era and the proportions held. The proportion of matches with a game differential of four or more has certainly increased since 2008.
The proportion of series that ends in an upset has also gone up with era, but not by a statistically significant amount.
In general, it appears as if there is a greater number of first round series with a game differential of four or more games since 2008. Recognizing the challenge such a game differential presents to a team is key in setting realistic expectations for a season. Several key conclusions can be drawn.
- If a team wins the Supporter’s Shield and/or the MLS Cup one season, they are unlikely to make it out of the first round of the next year’s playoffs. Sorry LA Galaxy and Colorado Rapids supporters.
- Fans have to be realistic when it comes to setting expectations for success in MLS and other competitions. My fellow Sounders Supporters have the desire to pull off the domestic double and possibly the CCL treble. This is completely unrealistic in MLS – supporters need to pick which competition they want their team to win and not expect the impossible.
- Sounders supporters, who desire a US Open Cup threepeat, should think twice if they want an MLS Cup. Such a win would put the team back into the CCL and likely cause them cross the crucial four match threshold.
Also likely is a good bit of correlation with overall parity for which MLS is notorious. As the Sounder at Heart blog suggests, they only measure how much parity there is and not whether or not parity is good. Interestingly enough, the English Premier League scores at the opposite end of the parity index. This aligns with less numerical expectations, and illustrates the conundrum I have. I want a meritocratic league where teams are allowed to reward players with the best contracts possible, and I want players to be rewarded financially for their skills. In the same vein, I don’t want to turn the league into such a financial boon that Russian oligarchs or oil sheiks decide to purchase championships for their their clubs with funds from outside their soccer operations and thus drown out other clubs from competing for available talent. In the case of MLS, the seemingly random nature of the league and the increasingly predictable success of the lower seeds in the playoffs suggests that the system needs to be corrected.
The exact nature of that correction can take many forms, but I will attempt to make some suggestions in my next post in this series.
Monday, January 3, 2011
The two proportion test is used to compare the percentage of an outcome - let's say wins - given a goal differential at the half - let's say two - versus the next lowest goal differential - in this case one. This is done for each goal differential to determine if there is a statistically significant change in the likelihood of an outcome given each increase in goal differential. Throughout each table a red highlight indicates a statistically significant reduction in the likelihood of an outcome and green a statistically significant increase in its likelihood. Logic would dictate that as goal differential at the half increases, we'd expect to see more green in the win column and more red in the draw and loss columns. One could see the colors going either way when it comes to clean sheets.
The Effect of Goal Differential on Match Outcome
The first effect that is examined is the extent to which increasing goal differential at the half helps home and away teams translate matches to victories. A baseline must be established before any comparisons can be made. The table below summarizes the overall outcome of matches from the 2005/06 to 2009/10 seasons in the English Premier League (click to enlarge).
Readers paying close attention will notice that the Home and Away wins and loses are inverses of each other. Here one begins to understand the home pitch advantage in the EPL. Not only does the home team have a nearly 80% better chance of earning the full 3 points, they also have a 41% better chance of earning at least a single point via a draw. These baseline percentages - regardless of halftime lead, regardless of half time clean sheet - are now used to study whether such halftime advantages produce statistically significant advantages in winning a match.
The table below summarizes the effects of goal differential on match outcome for both home and away teams (click to enlarge).
There are a few critical points to be made based upon the table above:
- The expected patterns of increased chance of winning the match, and decreased chances of drawing or losing the match, apply to all differentials except Away teams with a single goal differential. In this case, the likelihood of winning goes up but the likelihood of drawing does not. The likelihood of losing does go down by a statistically significant amount. This likely means that a single goal differential is enough to guarantee nearly nine in ten away teams a single point by greatly reducing the chances of a loss, but is not enough to move enough teams to the full three points.
- Interestingly, a one goal differential is the last point where the home team has an advantage over an away squad with the similar goal differential. By the time an away team has a two goal advantage, their likelihood of a win or a draw is statistically indistinguishable from a home team with the same advantage.
The Effect of Halftime Goal Differential on Maintaining a Clean Sheet
The table below summarizes the likelihood of a team maintaining a clean sheet with increasinging goal differentials.
The impact on the home side is much more interesting. When a home side goes up by two goals at the half they have a statistically significant 69% chance of finishing with a clean sheet - the highest percentage outside of the four goal scenario. However, when they reach a three goal halftime lead they see their chances for a clean sheet drop to 43.8% - the lowest of any differential home or away. Perhaps there is something psychological about a three goal halftime lead that makes the team that is on the wrong side of that lead come out of the half with more desire to score a goal quickly. Perhaps they see a three goal differntial necessitating quicker scoring than a two goal differential. Perhaps it makes the team on the right side of that lead more lazy. Whatever the cause, it generates a statistically significant drop in the likelihood of maintaining the clean sheet.
Whether a team is home or away, they should not lose a match when they have a two goal halftime lead. Beyond that, they can truly hang their head in shame if they lose after having a three goal or better lead at the half, as they would be the first team to have not won a match in the last five and a half years with such a lead. The likelihood of a clean sheet for an away team with a halftime lead is no better than a coin flip, while fans who desire a clean sheet of their team at home should root for a two goal lead at the half but nothing more. Keep these likelihoods in mind the next time your team is down or up by as many goals at the half.