Super Sunday came and went as a thrilling spectacle for the non-partisan bystander. The two games featuring the top four contenders–who by any reasonable estimation have all but sealed their places–were full of contentious decisions, tension, storylines and thrills. Even the most stone-hearted fan could surely not have been slightly warmed by the returning Danny Welbeck and his winning contribution and significantly, Arsenal’s late winner kept the four teams within a six point range. Everything about Arsenal’s title challenge is reliant on squad fitness so from that perspective a deep bench for the first time since around November was a huge bonus.
Manchester City may feel most aggrieved, specifically over the ludicrous penalty decision given against them, and now find themselves a small margin behind the other three. While it would be foolhardy to entirely discount them, they would need to be pretty faultless from here on in to seal the deal. It isn’t no chance, it has just decreased quickly and they have a match in each of the Champions League, FA Cup and League Cup final before they resume league duties. Thoughts may now well be elsewhere and not just in Pepland.
For Tottenham, a creditable result against a backdrop of a concession of a high volume of shots. This is unusual and hasn’t been a problem for them since, well, the last game against City. In fact this was the first time they have conceded more than 13 in a game since the return fixture. The difference between that game and this was here they continued their excellent record of limiting shots on target. Though Lloris made important contributions, he only made three saves and just once this season, again in the return fixture at White Hart Lane, has he made more than five in a game. This is a consistent and impressive run and as much as their ability to generate attacking play underpins their run into the top slots. They also haven’t conceded more than one goal against any of their rivals. Only Swansea, Stoke and Newcastle have managed two goals against them and nobody has managed three. Their long stretch of having not been behind by two goals in a league game continues and consistency as much as quality has been a hallmark of this Tottenham side.
Similar to Leicester, but unlike Man City and Arsenal, squad fitness has been good and continuing a theme from earlier in the year, the impact of a potentially decisive injury, that of Jan Vertonghen, has been minimised by the seamless integration of Kevin Wimmer, a player with a tiny amount of league experience.
Of course narratives run strong and judging by a large amount of copy, we saw Leicester seal the title last week. Now we see them looking more vulnerable but with a clear schedule and tough fixtures behind them. The similarities between their game and Tottenham’s were clear, both took not undeserved leads via controversial penalties, but a soft red card raised the difficulty of their task to a level they could not repel. But only just. Small margins…
Out in the world of amateur statistical modelling, there have been many potential results forwarded regarding the most likely outcomes of this fascinating and topsy turvy Premier League season. A former writer on here known to be well versed in betting markets noted this just yesterday:
Can we just say that every single PL model projection for the winner is within the margin for error?
This may sound blasphemous in a world that desires concrete predictions and answers, but is the most judicious takeaway right now. With only a two point spread and a huge range of factors likely to influence outcomes, many of which are unaccounted for by the modelling work done, it is simply unwise to declare a strong favourite. Injuries are impossible to foresee as is fatigue and each could have a huge bearing, not only on this battle but on that for relegation too. Once more this weekend we saw the fine margins by which matches can be decided and the huge influence of fortune. The team that eventually prevails will no doubt be one of the strongest contenders but also one of the most fortunate. Each game this weekend had a selection of marginal decisions that could have been given or ignored.
We also have a long history of teams defying expectation and a close battle brings into play extra factors: mentality, experience and other things statisticians find annoying to measure. Projections are a mere snapshot, a range of factors boiled down to often singular outputs where variation and bias can lurk unaccounted for and seemingly invisible.
It can also be noted the set-up of the teams after 25 games in 2013-14; the two teams with the strongest attacks ended up facing off down the stretch and pivotal moments occurred right though to the end, margins are tight, winners and losers separated by little:
Similarly just last season Leicester were seven points from safety, without a win in eight games and with two wins from 24 as late as 21st of March, yet survived and Sunderland’s near annual Houdini escapes have stung many a forecast and bettor. The many possibilities at both ends of the table are most often reflected by the somewhat relative caution found in the betting markets. This is not to denigrate the work done in private modelling, often people will be informing their own betting, but “skin in the game” counts for a lot.
Omar Chaudhuri has done an excellent job of collating the Sporting Index spreads throughout the season and from that we can see that seven teams are now projected to be ten or more points out from their pre-season prediction, with Chelsea and Leicester up around the thirty point mark. That disparity for so many teams is a clear reflection of the non-usual nature of this season, with Tottenham’s dramatic and impossible to predict improvement, Watford’s solidity and Aston Villa, Manchester City and Manchester United’s underperformance all now feeding into the uncertainty. Prediction is never an easy game, the sheer volume of profitable bookmakers reflects this and this is a season in which formerly solid methodologies have struggled. To bastardise half a phrase heard in the week from Dean Oliver, “it’s okay to say we don’t know.”
Crystal Palace have hit a wall. Without a win in nine matches, we find a familiar scenario for long time Pardew watchers. That is to say that his teams appear to be somewhat streaky, spells of excellent form are invariably followed by the opposite. Coming off a strong 2005-06 at West Ham, the following season he presided over “their worst run of defeats in over 70 years” (eight in all competitions), enough to find him jobless. Quickly rehired by Charlton he failed to save them from the drop. After a spell in the comparative wilderness he rolled up at Newcastle where he somehow rebuilt his reputation thanks to a turbo-charged 2011-12. Subsequent seasons saw the rollercoaster dip once more culminating in a “total collapse” during late 2013-14 in which they went 5-1-13 in the second half of the season and lost seven of their last eight. He retained his job seemingly only through the belligerence of Mike Ashley.
A return home to Crystal Palace has seen him helm a team that has outperformed shooting metrics for the majority of his tenure, but specifically this season. Seasoned Pardew viewers and those of us who track a team’s numbers have long expected some kind of reversion, and post Christmas, it appears to now have occurred. Now down in 13th, this seems far more in track with this team’s actual ability than the edges of the top six of seven they found themselves skirting pre-Christmas. What intrigues going forward is the question: will the rot stop? Indeed, is Alan Pardew capable of halting a downward slide?
Away at West Brom and Sunderland are trickier fixtures than might have seemed earlier this season and then come three fixtures against Liverpool, Manchester United and Leicester. We have to go two further games down the line before the comfort of “home to Norwich” and by then it’s mid-April and without swift remedy, it could be looking quite dire. Relegation is extremely unlikely; with 32 points they should be more than safe with only a small handful of points-gaining games, but an inter-season reflection upon the success of the project could see Pardew vulnerable. It is probably a sufficient aim to maintain their position in the league, but any aspirations above that level may need to be tempered or adjusted going forward. Alan Pardew appears to effect limited influence over the success of his teams.
Last week we found StatsBomb alumni old and new as well as some of the more well known and esteemed of the public football analytics blogosphere congregating in Central London for the third annual OptaPro forum. Also present were influential media contributors and many club insiders. This excellent event provided an opportunity for the groups to intermingle and communicate while enjoying presentations from a varied bunch of chosen parties.
If any incentive was needed to inspire any StatsBomb readers towards data work, the story of Sam Jackson holds great promise. Having chosen to start a blog on the statistical analysis of goalkeepers only last July, he submitted to the forum and was understandably thrilled to be selected. Given the opportunity to present to a knowledgeable crowd, he was able to provide a new slant on goalkeeper work, and acquitted himself well.
Often people are intimidated by a perception that advanced skills or complicated data is required to create new or innovative work and while there is no ceiling towards such analysis, there are still many truths to be ascertained from simpler more available data. Overall the skills and perception of the analyst can be the primary drivers and in advance of what one hopes will be a 4th annual OptaPro forum, now is an ideal time for anyone with an interest to get to work. As ever, we here at StatsBomb take a keen interest in the wider blogging community and endeavour to read as widely as possible across analytical work in all sports.
It is never too late to get started, take an interest and look for truths in the numbers. Plus it’s good fun.
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