How Should We Judge A Team After Six Games?


Arsenal sit top while Manchester United sit 12th. Today Mark Taylor tells us that while the chances of both occurring after just six games are slim, there's little gained from over reacting.

It is understandable that in the age of 24 hour news, delivered in a multitude of different ways, that snap judgements, leaving little room for compromise are the order of the day. If a team records an unexpectedly good or bad result, the need to provide instantaneous causes for the effect is almost overwhelming.

A Tale Of Two Teams

And so it proved for the respective managers of Arsenal and Manchester United. One match into the season and following a 3-1 home defeat, which revolved around a contentious penalty and red card decision, Wenger was portrayed as a rudderless embarrassment, with little idea about squad strengthening, who should gracefully step down. His time had run its course.

David Moyes, by contrast added to his Wembley silverware, the Community Shield, a partial gift of the outgoing Sir Alex, with an impressive tea-time demolition of a fairly useful Swansea team on the road at the Liberty Stadium. The chosen one, it seemed was also the right choice.

Five Premiership games further down the road and it is Wenger, having finally dabbled in the transfer market to acquire Ozil from Real Madrid, whose team sits atop the table and United which are now the side in crisis, lying no better than mid-table, following a home defeat to WBA. The media narrative has flip-flopped and August’s declarations have swiftly been shelved.

The truth is rarely likely to be found at the extremes of judgement experienced by these two managers and their sides, over the course of six matches. So we can try to use a statistical approach to better appreciate how likely the disappointing United start and the extremely encouraging Arsenal one is to have happened with little change in the relative merits of each side from the recent past.

Reacting To A Small Sample Size

Bookmakers are less likely to be influenced by a small run of match results and both Arsenal and Manchester United were offered at similar prices to last season for their game day seven matches against WBA and Sunderland, respectively. In short, both sides were being granted the respect deserving of their previous campaign, rather than any knee-jerk assessment based on little evidence. Therefore, in lieu of our own team strength model, we can use the prices for all 60 games played to the end of September as a basis to simulate the English Premiership through the six match period in 2013/14.

Manchester United proved that they were the best team in the Premiership in 2012/13 and had added Fellaini to their largely unchanged squad. But their opening run of matches pitched them against three possible title contenders, with visits to Liverpool, across the city to their neighbours and a home fixture with Chelsea. In only two of their opening six matches were United considered odds-on to take all three points, at home to Palace and WBA. Their cumulative expectation for all six games totalled an average of 10.5 league points. An impressive total in view of the difficult fixtures, but Manchester City, Chelsea, Liverpool, Arsenal were each quoted to gain more points and Everton and Spurs were less than a point behind the estimate for last season’s champions.

Arsenal had a projected point expectation of 11.4 points from their easier run of their first six matches. They only faced one title challenger in Spurs at home and they were consequently favoured to take three points in all of their opening matches.

So before a ball was kicked in the 2013/14, Arsenal were marginally favoured to be ahead of United after six matches, but averages often hide the detail of a situation and for greater appreciation of what could have happened in August and September, we need to model each individual match. We really want to have some information about United’s likely chances of languishing mid-table going into October.

Arsenal’s five wins and one defeat, as with United’s less impressive early season league record, is just one of the possible outcomes from the first six game days. The most likely outcomes aren’t guaranteed to always happen and less likely outcomes, such as WBA’s win at Old Trafford can and do happen. By simulating the entwined fixture list 1,000’s of times, we can expand on the basic information provided by the average excepted points haul for individual teams, to produce alternative tables based on the random variation within single games.

Both Arsenal and United are capable of topping the table after six matches, but the type of challenges faced by each side gave the Gunners a bigger advantage than was evident in the averaged values. In over 19% of the simulations Wenger’s side gathered enough points to at least share top spot going into October compared to just 12% for United, by virtue of the differently distributed and on average ore difficult fixture list faced by United. A table, just six games old, can be deceiving.

Unsurprisingly, the range of possible results of the 60 games played in the EPL would rarely fall in such a way as to see either Arsenal or United languishing at the foot of the table. An equally difficult fixture list combined with a poor deal from random variation could see United bottom, but only once every 300 seasons. A very good Spurs team, however, found itself plumb last after six matches as recently as 2008/09 and 2013/14’s current wooden spoon side is a chaotic Sunderland, just seeing off the challenge of promoted Crystal Palace. The likelihood that one of the promoted teams entered October as the side with the lowest points total in 2013/14 came in as a near 30% chance.

The Chances Of United Sitting 12th Or Worse

The pertinent point to 2013/14 relates to the chances that Moyes has presided over a 12th placed United through a combination of an unlucky streak within a tough opening set of matches and still has a side capable of playing like champions, even if their title chance has been irrevocable damaged by the opening six games. After six matches, United were 12th, but level on points with Newcastle in a lowly 16th.

The plot of possible league positions above, shows that a highly rated United side could, through a combination of randomly occurring disappointing results and a harder than usual set of games, finish 12th after 6 matches about 4% of the time. Additionally, they could be placed no better than 12th just over 15% of the time. So to put Moyes current “plight” into perspective, if we assume, along with the bookmakers, that United are still a similar force to that seen during the last season under Sir Alex, the current batch of six fixtures were slightly more likely to see United finish 12th or below than top the table.

Looking Forward

Arsenal, to the obvious delight of their fans has managed to record, not only their most likely outcome from six relatively benign matches, but also the most satisfying outcome. In their case, the impact of Ozil’s arrival may well have improved their core quality, just as the handover of power at United may have disrupted their form and it is right that such changes are proposed as possible causes for a series of results. But the size of these effects is often exaggerated.

If we also assume that little has changed and then see how likely we are to see results as extreme as those that have occurred simply through talent faced with the effects of chance, we can perhaps rein in early predictions of greatness for Arsenal or imminent demise for United. Results happen for a reason, but also because of random factors that are out of the hands of the players.

Faced with a low scoring sport, such as football, an unkind fixture list and any number of internal readjustments to the side, even the best should expect a tardy start just under twice a decade. In 2010/11 Arsenal finished 4rd and a single win short of finishing in second place. Six games into the following season, they found themselves….12th, having faced Spurs, Manchester United and Liverpool. They ultimately finished 3rd, their average finishing position over the last decade, even though short-term variation likely had a sizeable say in the opening two months of the campaign.



Read more of Mark's work on his The Power Of Goals blog

And follow Mark of Twitter: @MarkTaylor0

NFL and football fan. I've seen my two favourite sides, Stoke and the San Diego Chargers play at the new Wembley....and both lost.