|I don't care what SAF says, Monday's|
match is all about passion versus money.
It's been a very interesting two weeks since I last wrote about the Premier League's race for the title and European qualification. Manchester United has uncharacteristically stumbled against lower tier opponents the last few matches, while Manchester City have recaptured their best form and now look to pass United in the title race at home this coming Monday. Arsenal have been unable to maintain their lead for third, with Newcastle's continued good form and a game in hand putting them in position to draw even with the Gunners after their next match. Chelsea continues to rally, while Tottenham has steadily lost their grip on a Champions League spot. Meanwhile, Liverpool continues to be mired in a funk that is only earning them 1 PPM for the last two months.
All of the top clubs only have three or four more matches to go, and it's any one's guess as to how things are going to end up. Let's get an understanding of what the stats say about how the last several matches should play out.
The Race for the Premier League Championship
Manchester United's 20th league title, which looked like a sure thing only a few matches ago, now largely comes down to a single match next Monday. How did the Red Devils get to this point? If the graphs below are to be believed (click on either to enlarge), an uncharacteristic late season slump and complete reversal of fortunes with their cross-town rivals over the last three matches are to blame.
Two wins (Aston Villa & QPR), a draw from a winning position (Everton), and a loss to the potentially relegation bound (Wigan) have seen United take on Arsenal-esque season long form with a 4-match PPM of 1.75 PPM. Meanwhile, City have claimed nine points from 12 over the same period for a PPM of 2.25, with the sole loss a 1-0 setback at the Emirates due to a late Mikel Arteta wunderstrike. This all sets up a do-or-die match for both clubs on Monday at Etihad Stadium, with only three points separating the two.
One might suspect that form and location would indicate City would have the upper hand, but things are a bit more complicated than that. The team of statisticians at the Euro Club Index, which uses sophisticated models of past performance to predict the likelihood of future match outcomes, have the match odds at 40% City win/32% Draw/28% United win. While City is the favorite if only wins are considered, United must be considered the overall favorite as they have a 60% chance of getting the result they want - a win or a draw with only two matches remaining for both clubs and either a 3 or 6 point lead going into them. This is why the EuroClubIndex still has the odds for the Premier League title in United's favor 76%/24%. Win on Monday, and City flips those odds to 58%/42% in their favor when the Euro Club Index factors in the remainder of their schedule and what will be a goal differential advantage of more than six.
Monday's match may be one of those watershed moments in English soccer. Manchester City have utilized a mountain of cash in a short period of time to build a team that is on the brink of delivering the club's first title since 1968. Across from them stand the most dominant team in English soccer over the last twenty years, with Alex Ferguson looking to guide the club to its 20th league title. It's the nouveau riche versus old money. It's the young, hip upstart versus the old guard. Hopefully the match lives up to all of the hype.
The Race for UEFA Competition Qualification
Chelsea's win over Barcelona in the Champions League semifinals has provided added interest to the Premier League race for next season's European competitions. Their defeat of Barcelona may have been a pyrrhic victory with four players suspended for the final, and they may not be the favorites playing Bayern Munich at home with their odds of winning only 37% according to the Euro Club Index. However, anyone completely counting them out of the final doesn't know how deep the team is and how inspired they're playing lately. If they are able to complete an improbable run and win this year's tournament they would upset a lot of club's plans in the Premier League.
Lose the final, and all is normal with the top four teams from the Premier League getting into the 2012/13 Champions League tournament. Win the final to give Roman Abramovich what he's always wanted, and it's Chelsea (currently sitting 6th in the table) and the top three clubs from the Premier League that get into next season's tournament. To add even more drama, the Premier League season ends May 13th while the Champions League Final isn't played until the 19th, which means a number of clubs won't know which UEFA competition they will be playing in next season until a week after the season ends. Finishing third is critical to ensuring a club gets to participate in next season's Champions League and all of the revenue that comes with it.
Outside of the intricacies of European qualification due to Chelsea's Champions League form, the graphs below help to shed some light on how Premier League Clubs are managing their own destinies within the table.
Here are a few observations related to the graphs:
- Clearly Newcastle is peaking at the right time, having won their last six matches. They have a game in hand on Arsenal, which means they would draw even on points with a win at Wigan this weekend (although Arsenal would remain in third given their superior goal differential). Their remaining schedule may be the toughest one for those battling for European qualification - Chelsea (away), Manchester City (home), and Everton (away). They're likely to drop points along the way, which impacts their finishing odds that are discussed later.
- A few weeks ago I wrote about Arsenal needing to guard against the late season swoon that has shown up the last two seasons. While not on the scale of last season, this seasons' closing performance is beginning to look reminiscent of 2009/10. Walcott and Arteta picked up injuries in the last match, and their 4-match average form has dropped to nearly 1.5 PPM which is good for only third in this group of clubs. Arsenal's remaining matches are against Stoke (away), Norwich (home), and West Bromwich Albion (away). Normally this would inspire confidence given the relatively low table positions of the opposition, but this year it seems Arsenal plays to their opponents. Against top clubs in the Premier League they've played up, while they've been relatively unimpressive against the lower clubs.
- Of the remaining two clubs in serious contention for European competition based on table position, Chelsea is surging while Tottenham is fading. Spurs painted themselves into a corner with their fall-off in performance through Match 29, leaving little room for error in the closing months of the season. While they have experienced a rebound in form, the last two matches that ended in losses to Norwich City and QPR have put them right back in the hole they dug themselves. Spurs remaining schedule is Blackburn (home), Bolton (away), Aston Villa (away), and Fulham (home).
- Readers can see my thoughts on Liverpool's performance here.
Arsenal's likelihood of finishing in third, the only position guaranteed Champions League entry at the end of the season, is still at 86%. What they have been able to do is lower their chances of finishing below 4th, assuring them entry to at least the Europa League if Chelsea wins this year's Champions League.
Things get a little more interesting as one moves down the table. Even though Newcastle is streaking right now and may move even on points with Arsenal this weekend, the Euro Club Index finds that their prior performance and upcoming opponents suggest they're the least likely to finish 4th. In fact, the honor of "team most likely to finish fourth" goes to the current sixth place team, Chelsea. If Newcastle is able to pull off 4th it will be in the face of a 25% chance of finishing there or higher according to the Index - a truly impressive feat indeed!
None of these odds are meant to be prescriptive, which is why the matches are played. As an example, the Euro Club Index and nearly every other statistician gave Chelsea little chance of advancing once they drew Barcelona in the semifinals. Even when they went to Camp Nou for the return leg up 1-0 all the odds makers and statisticians said Barcelona would end up winning the round. It turns out everyone was wrong.
The majority of the time, the models work and the house wins. Knowing the odds of an outcome ahead of time, even if the outcome doesn't turn out to be true, makes for a better appreciation of how difficult the achievement was. Keep that in mind when you're watching perhaps the most exciting time of the season, promotion and relegation battles, unfold before you over the next three weeks.