Monday, April 30, 2012

That Sinking Feeling

Can he will them across the finish line for a 15th straight Champions League?
While this past weekend's draw at Stoke could have been considered a point well-earned when combined with Newcastle's loss at Wolves, those of us who have been paying close attention to the club for the last few seasons can't help but get a sinking feeling given the team's performances over the last month. Three weeks ago I wrote about how Arsenal needed to avoid the late-season swoon of seasons' past if they wanted to be assured of a 15th straight season of Champions League soccer. Sadly, the graph below points out they are on the usual slump to end the season (click to enlarge)

What has been bailing the Gunners out a bit has been the equally poor play from Tottenham (Sunday's win against Blackburn not-withstanding), as well as a relatively large starting gap to Newcastle and Chelsea. However, even with Newcastle's loss this past weekend they and Chelsea have been running higher 4-match moving average PPM's for two matches now (see graph below). Chelsea may be the most dangerous of the remaining teams, riding an 11-match unbeaten streak in all competitions.

Chelsea and Tottenham are also the most threatening in terms of tie breakers. The Cann Table below shows just how close things are in the race for third and fourth as of Sunday's action . All three teams in 4th through 6th positions have a game in hand on Arsenal, but only Tottenham and Chelsea are close on goal differential. As I said yesterday, Chelsea's 6-1 destruction of QPR wasn't just about putting their Loftus Road rival on the relegation ropes. It was more strategic in nature in that it added massively to their goal differential for what will surely be a close race for the third through sixth table positions.

So how do things look for the Gunners?

First, it must be pointed out that they and Tottenham control their own destinies. Win out, and the two of them get third and fourth, with Tottenham waiting for the results of the Champions League final to know if they will be in next year's edition of the tournament or be in the Europa League for the second year in a row.

Even with matches against Norwich (home) and West Bromwich Albion (away), it is a bit much to expect the Gunners to win two straight matches given their recent form. If they were to simply maintain their current point scoring rate they would average 1.25 PPM and finish with 69 points (rounding up) on the season. That's equivalent to winning one match of the remaining two. Keep that as a point of reference.

Tottenham's win against Blackburn kept them at 1.0 PPM on a four match basis, but one might expect them to close the season much better than that. However, assuming Arsenal finishes with 69 points their crosstown rivals would have to either win all three of their remaining matches (Bolton & Aston Villa away, Fulham home), or win two and draw one with the hopes of scoring five or more goals than Arsenal over the same time period to finish in third at season's end. This is doable but would require Spurs to average 2.33 PPM - something they haven't done since mid-season.

Where things get interesting is with Newcastle and Chelsea. Newcastle could claim third with a finish similar to the one described above for Tottenham except that they must win all three of their remaining matches as they're too far behind on goal differential to win a tie breaker. Chelsea is in a relatively similar position, as they would be eight points behind Arsenal with three matches to play if Arsenal played to their average form the rest of the way. This makes Wednesday's clash between Newcastle and Chelsea an important decider in how tight the race will be for third.  A win for one team, and the best the losing team can reasonably hope for is fourth position while the winner keeps the dream of guaranteed Champions League play alive. A draw means both teams are likely settling for fourth at best.

So let's recap:
  • Lose both matches, and Arsenal stays at 66 points. In such a scenario it's very likely they get passed by one, if not two, clubs below them and either must count on Bayern to beat Chelsea to get into the Champions League or know before the season's end that they will be playing in the Europa League with a finish in fifth.
  • An Arsenal win and loss (essential holding form from the last four matches) in the final two matches of the season makes it reasonably unlikely that they finish below third.
  • An Arsenal win and a draw puts their point total to 70. With three matches to play, only Newcastle and Spurs would be able to catch them and they would have to win all three of their matches to do so. There is no way Chelsea can catch Arsenal under this scenario.
  • Win both matches, and Arsenal finishes third and earns a 15th straight year of Champions League play.
These various scenarios, along with the strength of the clubs in the remaining fixtures and a variety of past performances, leads the Euro Club Index to place the following odds on the likelihood of each club's finishing position.

It's certainly still Arsenal's third table position to lose, albeit down by 1% from last week's odds.  Still, the race for third would have been over by now if they could have beaten Wigan at home or QPR away over the last month of play.  There's a sense of unease for Arsenal supporters going into these final two matches that won't disappear until after the final match is played and the fate of next year's team in European competitions is understood.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Three (Or Four) to Go...

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.
So what has all the latest action done to affect the odds of clubs finishing in certain table positions?  For that answer, we turn to stats provided by the Euro Club Index.

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.

Monday, April 23, 2012

A Few Statistical Observations on Liverpool & Dalglish

With yesterday's loss Liverpool now has twelve on the season, is two points behind crosstown rivals Everton, is only three points ahead of 13th place Norwich, and only has a 21% chance of finishing higher than 8th in the table.  Most insultingly the latest defeat came at the hands of Roy Hodgson, the manager who was so reviled only a little more than a year ago that he was sacked to bring in King Kenny.  A season that started with so much hope after Dalglish's heroics last season is now ending in what can only be called a second-half collapse.

To get some perspective on how this season compares to previous ones, see the graphs below (click on either to enlarge).

Like last season, this is one of two halves.  After going below a 1.5 PPM 4-match average only once in the first 19 matches, Liverpool has not been above that barrier for the entire second half of the season.  Kenny Dalglish's side has not earned more than a single point per match on a 4-match average basis since Match 24 more than two months ago.  Sadly, not even Roy Hodgson had such a streak during his half season at the helm.  Dalglish is also approaching another Hodgson milestone.  He's currently earning a season-long 1.35 PPM (46 points from 34 matches), while Hodgson only earned 1.25 PPM (25 points from 20 matches).  If Dalglish only earns the single point per match he's been averaging for the last two months he will finish with a 1.32 PPM.  Anyone would be splitting hairs to say he has performed much better than Hodgson in terms of the league standings and performance, which means the obvious question must be asked.  Does Daglish deserve to be sacked?

There can be points made that some of this may not be Dalglish's mess.  The recently departed Damien Comolli certainly diluted the power of the manager within Liverpool's structure, being instrumental in the signings of Andy Carroll and Luis Suarez.  Hodgson was constrained by a lack of investment during the latter stages of the Hicks/Gillett regime.  Dalglish inherited that under resourced club and has been able to invest a net £20M pounds in new players.  That's not huge sum in today's Premier League, especially considering the lack of investment compared to rivals like Manchester United, Chelsea, and Manchester City.  Neither Hodgson nor Dalglish have had the best players at Liverpool, and a good number of those players were not brought in by them.  Finally, Dalglish has been far more competitive in cup competitions than Hodgson, having won the League Cup and getting the Reds to the FA Cup final.

There is, however, a bit of a crisis of confidence that the club may not be able to recover from with Dalglish still at the helm.  No one in the right mind would ever say he and Hodgson are equivalent in stature or accomplishments.  Dalglish was clearly a special player and has a Premier League title to his name as a manager.  He will always be loved by the Kop, perhaps more so for his leadership through some of their darkest times than his accomplishments on the pitch.

But just as Liverpool was too big a club for Hodgson, perhaps Dalglish just isn't the right guy for Liverpool's current needs.  Beyond being completely unable to finish off clear chances on goal, the statistics would suggest the team has completely capitulated in the second half of the season.  There's a real risk that this Liverpool side finishes much lower than eighth table position (49% to be exact), and the club is staring at their worst finish since the 1993/94 season.  Dalglish was viewed as the king-turned-savior at this point last season.  Now he may be viewed more as a savior-turned-poor-fit when it comes to the end of this one.  Perhaps such a view of a man with the history of Dalglish's at a club like Liverpool would be considered unfair, but sometimes a full change from top-to-bottom is needed to send a clear message to the players (both current and prospective) and supporters.  Managers don't get paid for what they did last year or decades ago.  They get paid for what they did this year given the expectations that were set at the beginning of the season.  I think everyone knows this is not the performance Fenway Sports Group expected when the season kicked off nine months ago.

Whatever Liverpool's management decides, they better have a plan that can be executed very quickly if they do plan on sacking King Kenny.  Replacing a legend is never easy, even if it is becoming apparent that it may be time to move on.  Letting things draw out over the summer won't provide a framework for the successful recruitment of the quality of players Liverpool desperately needs to contend again for Champions League positions.  Keep him or sack him, Fenway Sports Group needs to act decisively and definitively or risk a further slide in table position next season.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Alternative EPL Data Visualizations: The Cann Table

In all of my writing about the visualization of this season's run-in, I thought it would be good to remind myself and everyone else of one of the more classic alternative visualizations: the Cann Table.  It's a relatively straight forward and non-complex way to view how teams are performing relative to each other.  It uses all the same data as a normal league table, but instead of arranging the positioning of clubs based upon table position it arranges them based upon point total.  This provides another perspective on the data that makes relative performance between clubs more visually clear.

Talking about table positions makes sense.  It's a way to provide a consistent comparison between seasons when the point totals required to secure a specific table position can change greatly from year to year.  It's also how confederations grant positions to clubs in their super-league tournaments, and it's often used by fans to judge whether their club is making any progress season over season.  The challenge is that the traditional table is not the best tool for viewing what's going on within a single season, and how much of a gap there really is between one's favorite club and the clubs around them.  Enter the "Cann Table".

The Cann Table is named after Jenny Cann, who popularized it until her untimely death in 2003.  In it's simplest form it gives one line of text to each point total, and then lists the clubs next to their corresponding point totals.  If a point total has no corresponding clubs assigned to it, the column where a club would go is left blank.  Consecutive blank rows communicates the size of the gaps between two teams in a very effective and straightforward manner.  To aid in identifying tie breakers or differences in the total number of games played, each club's goal differential and any games in hand are displayed next to their names.  As the season goes through its twists and turns, the Cann Table provides a great word picture of the true gaps between clubs that a table position-centric view might hide.

The graphic below is the EPL's Cann Table through Match 33.  Normally I wouldn't produce my own chart, as The Football Project's site often has a very good one.  However, they have not updated theirs since April 2nd, and when we're this close to the end of the season having the latest data is key.  So, I went over to Ian Eliowart's site that updates automatically and borrowed his data.  He not only has Cann tables for the Premier League, but also every division of association football on the British Isles.

Take a look at the table below, and tell me that it doesn't better communicate the dominance of the clubs from Manchester, the large gap between the top six clubs and the rest of the league, the fact that Wolves are clearly bound for relegation, and that it's really only a battle between four clubs to avoid the remaining two relegation spots.  Combine the Cann Table with the publicly available forecasts over or the Euro Club Index, and one has a very powerful set of tools with which to judge their club's relative strength within a league.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

An Update on the EPL Title Race and European Qualification

Yup... it's squeaky bum time!
It's been three matches since I last wrote about the race for European qualification within the Premier League.  Since then Newcastle United has continued their fine run of form, and are now a serious contender for Champions League qualification.  Barring their last match against Wolves, Manchester United has maintained their good form and has maintained a five point lead over Manchester City in the race for the title.  Chelsea continues to improve, and Liverpool and Tottenham continue to struggle.  It's worth another look at how things are shaking out with only five matches remaining in the season.

The Title Race

While the title race wasn't included in the post two weeks ago, it is now worth a look as United has continued their superior end-of-season form.  The three graphs below present the same views as the post from two weeks ago - 4-match running averages for PPM and table position and then an overall running average of PPM.

The 4-match running average PPM chart provides some interesting contrast to the same chart below for clubs battling it out for European qualification.  Save for a single week at the beginning of the year, Manchester United has not dropped below the 1.5 PPM barrier on a 4-match basis.  They did have another dip in form around mid-season, but they have subsequently recovered.  On the other hand, Manchester City never dropped below the 1.5 PPM barrier until just recently.  This has led some to say it's City's late season swoon that is costing them the title (see second graph for table position by match), but the 4-match PPM graph suggests otherwise.  Look at the graph starting at Match 13 and notice the number of times the black line (Manchester United) is above the gray line (Manchester City), which indicates when Manchester United's 4-match average PPM is greater than Manchester City's.  In the twenty one matches from Match 13 to Match 33, United has earned a greater 4-match average PPM over 14 of the 21 matches.  The gap between the two teams' table position hasn't been closing over the last month - it's been closing since November 27th!

The next question to answer is if this gap has been closing simply because of United improving or City faltering?  Look at the third graph that shows cumulative PPM over the season and the answer becomes fairly clear.  Manchester United has bounced between a PPM of 2.25 and 2.5 since Match 9.  Incidentally, Match 9 is also where City had their biggest lead of the season at 5 points.  They would maintain the five point lead until Match 13, where they'd begin to falter.  Excluding the always misleading first few matches of the season, City's high point came in Match 12 where they were averaging 2.83 PPM.  Since then their overall point accumulation rate has fallen by .021 PPM over 21 matches in a remarkably consistent manner (R-squared of 0.78).  It seems that just as many people, myself included, were declaring the title race all-but over was the point where it started to become competitive again.  Certainly Manchester United has done everything possible to put themselves in a competitive position as the season has worn on by being far more consistent that City, but they've also benefited from a slow-and-steady decay at their crosstown rivals.

While Manchester City got a favorable result out of the Match 33 action, they're still a long shot for the title. has Manchester United's odds of winning the title more than 4.5 times higher than City's, which would put United's chances of winning at around 82%.  As of Match 32, the Euro Club Index had United's odds at 99% and City's odds at 1%, which means they'll likely come back down to a 90%/10% split after the latest matches are factored in. has factored in the Match 33 results, and has United's odds of winning their 20th top flight title at 81%.  The numbers suggest this will be an uphill battle for City, but it's not impossible.  City will host United on April 30th in what may be an epic, title deciding match.  If City are able to keep things close until that match (5 points or less at that point) and come out of it with a win, they would set up a final two matches of the season that will be the definition of "squeaky bum time" for Sir Alex Ferguson and the Red Devils.

Updated 5:30 AM PST April 13, 2012: Odds of Manchester United winning title only dropped to 93% according to the Euro Club Index.

An Update on the Race for European Qualification

As the title race is a two-club affair, there's an equal amount of drama to be found for those not living in Manchester via the race for European qualification.  Seven points separate the four teams competing for two Champions League positions and a sport in the Europa League.  The graphs below have been updated based upon the action over the last three matches, with commentary located below.

The first thing that immediately jumps out of the first graph is Newcastle's late season surge that has put them into contention for a spot in the Champions League.  By mid-season Newcastle was a solid seventh in the league after falling back in the pack after a hot start.  It seems as if they've found their legs again, and are creating a run that rivals Arsenal's in terms of how far they've improved over such a short period of time.  They've given Tottenham another club to worry about, although it seems as if Spurs have reversed their downward trend that I wrote about in my last post.  Chelsea has also continued to improve, going back up to the 2.0 4-match PPM average for the first time since Match 23. Liverpool will be looking to get a win against West Bromwich Albion on April 22nd and head back to the right side of 1.0 PPM for the first time since Match 24.  Arsenal will need to keep winning to stay in front of Tottenham and Newcastle, with two more wins required to move them off of the 2.25 PPM average that they've earned the last two matches.

When it comes to table positions, only Newcastle and Arsenal have headed in the right direction over the last three weeks.  Tottenham, Chelsea, and Liverpool have all headed the opposite direction, with Liverpool's slide into eighth and a four-match average table position of 7.75 being too much for Fenway Sports Group.  They announced the departure of Damien Comolli this morning, with rumors flying that more front office departures may be coming.  Coming only days before the FA Cup semifinal, such action may prove to be a distraction to the club.

On a cumulative PPM basis, one could say that Newcastle and Chelsea seem to have now settled into their longer-term trends of bouncing between 1.6 and 1.9 PPM throughout the latter half of the season.  Liverpool and Spurs continue their downhill trends, although recent performances have certainly produced a slight uptick for both clubs.  Meanwhile, Arsenal's stumble against QPR only slowed their upward ascent back to a 2.0 PPM average.

So what impact has this all had on the odds of clubs finishing in certain table positions come mid-May?  The table below represents the latest snapshot of just such data from  Given that Liverpool has fallen to 8th in the table, I've also included the current 7th place team (Everton) in the table even though they're not included in the graphs above.

While the odds of Arsenal making the Champions League for a 15th straight season have only gone up 1% over three matches, their likelihood of avoiding a play-in by finishing third have gone from 68% three matches ago up to 86% now.  Meanwhile, Tottenham's odds of claiming a Champions League spot have gone down by 20 points in three matches.  This is mainly due to Newcastle's resurgence, with their odds of claiming a Champions League spot up by 14 points from three matches ago.  Meanwhile, Sports Club Stats does give a slight edge to Chelsea over Newcastle when the remainder of fixtures is considered for both clubs.  The battle for fourth will certainly be interesting, with some arguing it would be good to see Newcastle claim the position at season's end.  Liverpool's late season form has continued to dim the outlook on their finish position, with no chance of finishing higher than 7th and now a growing likelihood of finishing 8th or lower.  It's no surprise that their ownership has begun to clean house, as this is not what anyone would have expected out of the club after last year's very different finish.

Updated 5:30 AM PST April 13, 2012: Euro Club Index odds of Top Four finish are Arsenal 99%, Tottenham 72%. Chelsea 28%, and Newcastle 2%.

No matter where one's favorite club stands, there is something worth fighting for in the final five matches of the season.  Enjoy this weekend's soccer in England, whether you're watching league action or the FA Cup semifinals!

Monday, April 9, 2012

Beware the Late Season Swoon, Arsenal

His toughest campaign yet...
"It wasn't really the losing, it was the routine. Year after year, it was always the same story. Fighting until the end only to see we didn't have the energy, in the semifinals, the finals, to arrive in the final sprint." 
Cesc Farbregas, speaking on his time at Arsenal (August 15, 2011)

Such was Fabregas' assessment of the difficulties he experienced at Arsenal upon his departure for Bracelona last summer, which now seems like so long ago to many Arsenal supporters.  Why shouldn't they and their manager feel vindicated at this point?  After a disastrous start the club has come on strong the last nine matches, winning eight of them to take 24 of 27 points and move into third position in the table.  Looking at the run in the club had the more difficult draw of teams versus its cross town rivals that are also in the race for third and fourth, but they went a long way towards evening the odds with their 1-0 win over Manchester City this weekend.  This nine match run has been the Gunners' best form during the 2011-12 season, with both the Euro Club Index and Sports Club Stats now holding the Gunner's odds of finishing 4th or better at 90% or higher.

All signs are pointing to a 15th straight season of Champions League soccer for Arsenal and an interesting off season where hope will spring eternal that a few key signings by Wenger can bring championship glory to the Emirates.

However, a look at the numbers is in order before the corks are popped and Wenger's reputation is rehabilitated.  Much like last week's Liverpool post, the two graphs below present the 4-match running averages for PPM and table position for the last three Arsenal seasons.  If the history in these graphs is any guide, the Gunners aren't out of the woods yet.

Fabregas knew what he was talking about, and the phenomenon of the late season swoon extended beyond the cup competitions to which his quote might be directly attributed.

In the 2009/10 season the Gunners were only one point off second position (Manchester United) and three behind the league leaders (Chelsea) with five matches to play.  Rather than finish strong, the Gunners would stumble to a third place finish claiming only four points from fifteen available via a 1-1-3 record.  Chelsea would go 4-0-1 to claim their third Premier League title, while Manchester United would go 4-1-1 and fall two points short of nipping Chelsea at the finish line (Chelsea held a large edge in goal differential that necessitated Manchester United win the championship outright by points).

Things got even worse in 2010/11, where the Gunners' swoon started in match 28.  At that point the team was sitting second on 56 points, four back of leaders Manchester United and seven ahead of third place Machester City.  The next 11 matches would see Arsenal earn twelve points from thirty-three.  Yet again they limped into a Champions League spot, this time falling to fourth and being forced into a play-in against Udinese the following season.  Such a string of late season swoons, combined with longings to go back to a boyhood home (Fabregas) and a boatload of money (Nasri), served to dislodge key players and incite the crisis of confidence at the beginning of this season.

That crisis is now clearly in the past.  Wenger's leadership is now hailed as a key to the season's turnaround, and stands in stark contrast to the siege he was under the first third of the season.  Yet while the pressure has lessened, it has not gone away.  Chelsea is still alive in the Champions League, and an unlikely championship for their club in that competition would mean only the top three clubs in the Premier League would get berths in next year's competition. With Tottenham only two points back and Chelsea five back it will still be a tight race for a Champions League spot, no matter what the projections say.  Arsenal can't afford to have any type of late season let off, not even one as narrow as the fall off in 2009/10.  They've fought very hard to get back to the position they are in today, as evidenced by the second graph above that shows the running average of table position.  They must finish just as well as they've played recently, and only then will they be able to look back on this season as one of redemption for the players, the manager, and the club.

Friday, April 6, 2012

A Comparison of Liverpool's PPM and Table Position (2009-2012)

Dead manager walking, or one who's ready to right the ship?

After another loss, this time at Newcastle United, Liverpool boss Kenny Dalglish is feeling the heat as the Reds have now slid into 8th position in the table behind rivals Everton with seven matches remaining in the campaign.  A season that started so brightly after a monumental rescue of the club midway through the last campaign has turned into a disappointment as of late.  Since the mid-way point of the season Liverpool has only claimed 11 points from 13 matches, and slid from sixth to eighth in the table.  This is certainly not the way the club and its supporters envisioned finishing the season, and as such there are calls for the club's ownership to reassess Kenny Dalglish's three year contract after only one year into it.

While the recent run of form is certainly disappointing, managers are all too often sacked or praised based upon short term performance that's not reflective of their actual long-term tenure.  The key to assessing manager performance is to

  1. Take a longer term view of their time at a club, and
  2. Compare such a view with similar views of past managers at the club.
Doing so helps prevent recency bias, which may lead a club to prematurely sack a manager based upon an unusually bad run of form.  It's in the spirit of providing such perspective that the graphs below are provided.

Similar to my post last week that discussed the performance of the five clubs battling for table positions three through five, the graphs below look at Liverpool's PPM and table position on a 4-match running average basis.  Three season's worth of data are presented: Benitez's final year at the club (2009-10), the fateful 2010-11 campaign split between Hodgson and Dalglish, and the current season.  Each graph displays the running average for the previous four matches, with even longer term trends visible in certain data sets.  Click on either of the graphs to enlarge them.  

A few key conclusions can be taken away from the graphs when one takes the longer term view presented within them:
  • Any comparisons between Dalglish and Hodgson are completely premature and unwarranted at this point.  On table position alone, Dalglish is more like Benitez than Hodgson.  And table position is a good measure of a club, because it measures how well a club is doing against the competition.  There is a fair bit of change from season to season as to how many points are required to win the league or finish in a Champions League position.  I would chalk that variation up to clubs almost pacing themselves based upon who else their competing against for the few spots they desire.  I don't know if anyone would consider this season's Manchester United team one of the most dominant over the years, yet they may just finish with one of the greatest point totals in league history.  Why? Because they've been pushed by Manchester City all year long.  So, while the point total this year may be disappointing, it's not a disaster.  The more important thing is keeping up league form in the table.  On that front, Dalglish has been far better than Hodgson, who twice fell to 12th or lower in the table on a 4-match running basis.
  • Given that first point, the conclusions drawn from the 2011-12 campaign may just as easily go the opposite direction if Liverpool and Dalglish continue on there current slide.  Only four points separate them from 12th table position. has their odds of finishing below 8th at 43%, while the Euro Club Index has the odds at 19%.  Dalglish and the club need to right the ship or they're staring at a pretty low table position come the end of the season.
  • Perhaps such a low point total yet high table position are also signs that Dalglish and Liverpool are benefiting from an "easier league" this season.  If so Liverpool supporters should be more concerned as future seasons that are a bit more competitive would result in a lower table position.  Look to the 2009-2010 PPM tally, and note that only once did Benitez drop below the 1.0 PPM 4-match average.    Such reasonably consistent performance by that side allowed the club to steadily bounce between 5th and 7th table position throughout the year, where they finished with 63 points and 7th table position.  Fast forward to this season, and no one expects Liverpool or Everton, who is only one point ahead of the Reds, to run the table the rest of the way and earn the 21 points that would put them in the low 60's.  It appears as if the 7th table position will go to a much lower point total than during Benitez's final year, and something closer to last season (Liverpool earned 58 points for 6th, and Everton 54 points for 7th).
  • Keeping with the PPM graph, what is disturbing when comparing Dalglish to Hodgson is the length of time Dalglish has spent below the 1.0 PPM barrier and the long decline the club has been on to get there.  Hodgson was clearly not the right man for the job last season, and as I wrote last summer Dalglish did do much better than Hodgson with the tools at both men's disposals.  At the time I surmised that the final straw for Hodgson's tenure was the steady drop off in form after a local peak around match 12 which had earned him a reprieve.  During that time, Hodgson lost an average of 0.15 PPM per match off his 4-match running average.  By comparison, Dalglish's side has lost 0.08 PPM per match in their current run of form.  While Hodgson's decline was a bit faster than Dalglish's, Dalglish's may last longer given he has another seven matches to go that were not afforded to Hodgson.  In this regard, it's fair to compare forms between the two managers, although the reasons for such form may be clearly different.  It's clear that Hodgson never had the players' ears nor hearts, generating uninspired and tactically wrong-headed performances along the way that were best addressed with the return of a legend to lead the club.  What exactly is ailing Kenny's team is a more complicated matter best left up to other analysts.
It's clear that Liverpool are not where they want to be in this rebuilding project after the near bankruptcy of the Hick's/Gillett regime.  The beginning of that rebuilding effort can be clearly linked to the hiring of Kenny Dalglish, and he certainly turned things around last season and saved Liverpool from one of their worst finishes in Premier League history.  Dalglish now sits on the precipice with seven matches to go.  Finish well, and he may just salvage 7th table position for the club, essentially holding steady with last year's 6th position.  Perhaps Liverpool can also add an FA Cup to their League Cup that they won this year, which would help buoy the club after what must be a disappointing Premier League campaign.

Still, all the potential positives over the next seven matches will likely not outweigh the feeling by Fenway Sports Group that battling for seventh table position is not why they bought Liverpool.  They don't invest in sports clubs because they can get good deals like they did with the purchase of Liverpool Football Club.  They've invested in the Boston Red Sox, Roush-Fenway Racing, and Liverpool because they want to build champions.  The club's ownership has righted the ship, and contrary to those howling in the media for Kenny's head this season has not been "a disaster".  A disappointment, yes.  A disaster, no.  What the level-headed owners of Liverpool must ask themselves is if they feel this run of form is the best they can get from Dalglish given a proper investment in players, or if there are external factors beyond his control that made this season less successful than it normally would have been.  I don't know the answer to that question. Only the club's owners do.  I just know that it's going to be yet another interesting summer in Merseyside for a club's supporters that must be a bit tired of all the drama after three consecutive seasons of it.