By Brandon Tan
One of the most discussed statistics in soccer leading up to a match is “league form”: the results of the team’s last six games. We see this statistic referenced again and again by commentators and pundits in their match previews and analyses. The phenomenon is all over the websites of sports news outlets, such as here in the Guardian.
However, is form a statistic that we should care about? Does being “in-form” really predict match outcomes?
To answer this question, I test whether there is a significant correlation between the match outcome and league form. I compiled the fixture results from the English Premier League seasons 2010-11 to 2015-16 for each club and ran a simple linear regression with points earned (Win- 3 points, Draw- 1 point, Loss- 0 points) as the response variable and form (the average points earned over the last six matches) as the explanatory variable controlling for home advantage and the end-of-season rank of the opposing team (see Figure 1).
What I found was that there is no statistically significant correlation (at 5% significance) between points earned and form for any club. For instance, consider the results below from running the regression on Manchester United’s fixtures (see Figure 2). Home advantage and rank are clearly significant with p-values close to zero, while form isn’t even close with a p-value of 0.837, way above the 5% significance necessary to suggest a legitimate prediction model.
Someone might argue that 6-game form is considering too many games, so I tried running the regression on form defined as the average points earned from the last 3 games instead. Again, I found no statistically significant correlations, with the p-value from running the regression on Manchester United fixtures at 0.494.
This analysis suggests that as soccer fans we really need to stop making such a big deal out of form, because it really doesn’t tell us anything at all.
|Team||p-value from regression (form = average points earned from last 6 games)|
By Jeffrey Gleason
Nine weeks into the NFL season, no teams remain unbeaten. This could’ve actually been said after eight weeks, after seven weeks, and after six weeks as well. Week 5 was the last time an unbeaten team remained, when both the Cardinals and Bengals were sitting at 3-0.
However, after these same nine weeks, five teams remain unbeaten at home. The Patriots, Broncos, Eagles, Packers, and Cardinals have yet to lose on their own turf.
Home field advantage is a phenomenon that gets a lot of traction in sports. Experts often use it to justify their predictions and betting lines usually reflect the perceived advantage of the home side. However, people often generalize home field advantage with a “one size fits all” approach, acknowledging its presence, but assuming it displays a constant impact across different situations.
With five unbeaten NFL home teams and the recent impetus of a road team finally winning Game 7 of the World Series (the Giants topped the Royals on October 29th to capture their third championship in five years), I was interested in how home field advantage was quantitatively different in different situations. How does it vary across sports? Do both good teams and bad teams experience the same advantage? Is it magnified in the postseason? What about differences in earlier eras? These are the questions I set out to resolve.
by Tom Pham
After his £12.5m ($19.9m) signing with Southampton during the summer, Kenyan midfielder Victor Wanyama claimed that he “believes one day Champions League football is achievable at Southampton.” Most fans knew that the midfielder was just simply trying to encourage his teammates and fans; none of us expected Southampton to actually challenge for a Champions League spot, especially considering they were struggling in League One in 2010-11 and were 18th in the Premier League last November. However, as the saying goes, we should only judge a team after ten games, and Southampton are passing that test with flying colours. Southampton are sitting comfortably in fifth, with 19 points, only six behind league leaders Arsenal, and one behind second-placed Chelsea. They are tied with Tottenham and Everton and are 2 points above champions Manchester United.
Southampton’s league form has been nothing to scoff at, gaining a convincing win at Anfield against Liverpool on a Dejan Lovren header, a credible draw against Manchester United at Old Trafford and a string of clean sheets and solid defensive performances, the only recent error being Asmir Begovic’s freak goal at the Britannia Stadium, only the fifth goalkeeper to ever score in the Premier League. St. Mary’s has become one of the most intimidating places for away teams to travel to, where the Saints have only conceded one goal this season in five games. This begs us a simple question, what has propelled Southampton to such an impressive start to the season?
by Tom Pham
After Liverpool’s lackluster display against Southampton, many people were disappointed with the lack of creativity and flair in the Liverpool midfield, calling out for new signings and the departure of Jordan Henderson and Lucas Leiva. These fans were desperate for the return of Luis Suarez, hoping that his partnership with Daniel Sturridge will propel Liverpool into better form and an eventual Champions League spot at the end of the season. However, it is not Luis Suarez that is the vital cog within the Liverpool attack, it is their tricky Brazilian wonderkid Coutinho who will do so.
Signed from Inter Milan in January 2013 for a measly fee of £8.5m ($13.8m) after a disappointing spell where he could not live up to his potential, Coutinho has found a home at Anfield. Ever since his debut at Liverpool, he has instantly become a fan favorite with his mazy dribbling skills and sublime passing ability. Anyone who has watched Coutinho play knows that he is capable of threading a pass through the smallest of openings and capable of creating chances out of nowhere. As the cliché goes, Coutinho is capable of splitting a defense open like a hot knife through butter. It is a skill that Liverpool fans have missed dearly ever since the departure of Spanish star Xabi Alonso.
Coutinho has proven to be a revelation and a bargain. Before being sidelined for almost two months by a nasty shoulder injury due to a clash with Ashley Williams, Coutinho has been the driving force behind Liverpool’s improving attack. In only 923 minutes of Premier League football in the 2012/13 season since his debut in February against West Brom, Coutinho already has three goals and seven assists; he was directly involved in a goal once every 92 minutes, so basically once a game. A more recent example of the importance of Coutinho was in the Swansea game where he was taken off in the 55th minutes. Liverpool completed 48 successful passes in the final third in the first half, and only managed a measly four after the break.
We can take a look at Coutinho’s numbers in comparison to other midfielders in the Premier League last season just to measure the true impact of Coutinho. First we take a look at Santiago Cazorla, Arsenal’s diminutive Spaniard. In 3301 minutes of Premier League football, he was directly involved in 25 goals, averaging one involvement every 132 minutes. Or Juan Mata perhaps, one of the best players in the Premier League last season. He was involved in 29 goals in just 2729 minutes, however, he was still not as impactful as Coutinho, his involvement was only once per 94 minutes. Another Spaniard whose creativity has been praised is David Silva, yet his involvement was far worse than that of Coutinho. He was involved in only 16 goals last season in 2511 minutes of football, averaging an assist or goal once every 157 minutes. In comparison to the other top attacking midfielders in the Premier League last season, albeit in a smaller sample size, Coutinho has proven to be an elite attacking midfielder who was directly involved in goals and assists at a higher rate than any other elite attacking midfielder.
Coutinho’s impact at Liverpool measured statistically has been leaps and bounds over any other player in the team, and Liverpool can only hope that his injury is not too severe. The return of Coutinho, combined with the form that both Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge are in, is a very promising sign for Liverpool this season.
by Karthik Sastry
When asked about the last time he had seen his Arsenal side as well as they did in last Tuesday’s comfortable 2-0 victory over an on-form Napoli, manager Arsene Wenger could only draw a comparison with his club’s dramatic 2-1 triumph over Barcelona at the Emirates in February 2011. Tactically, the parallel is interesting. At that time the undisputed conductor of the Gunners’ attack was the now-departed Cesc Fabregas, who excelled at finding small openings in the middle of the pitch. Wenger selected his team to suit this centrally-focused approach; by the end of 90 minutes, he was playing in front of the talismanic Spaniard three forwards (Andrey Arshavin, Robin van Persie, Nicklas Bendtner) all most comfortable playing through the middle. Unfortunately, the strategy had an obvious counter, successfully implemented by opposition large and small: to defend narrow and deep before attacking wide areas quickly on the break.
On first glance, Wenger’s team-sheet for the European clash suggested a return to the old “pack-the-middle” mentality, with central midfielders (Mikel Arteta, Matthieu Flamini, Tomas Rosicky, Mesut Ozil, Aaron Ramsey) substituting for central strikers. But the game itself developed rather differently. Arsenal did play controlled, passing football, but the goals came from incisive and quick moves on the flank.
The outcome was not a turn of fortune, but rather a testament to the flexible movement of Wenger’s attackers. Instrumental in this regard was new addition Mesut Ozil. The German playmaker knows quite a bit about managing constriction in the middle of the pitch—at Real Madrid, he was most often flanked by Cristiano Ronaldo and Angel Di Maria, both of whom like to cut in on their preferred foot. Ozil would respond to the wingers’ movement by drifting to the vacated flanks to provide another outlet and, in many cases, drag holding midfielders woefully out of position.
That experience rotating to the flank was on full display Tuesday night at the Emirates. Early in the match it became clear that Napoli’s defense weakness would be on their left, where full-back Juan Zuniga seemed out of sorts and young forward Lorenzo Insigne unwilling to offer assistance. Ozil repeatedly slipped away from Napoli’s midfield anchors Valon Behrami and Gokhan Inler to overload that side of the pitch; 48 of the 79 balls he received were in the right third of the pitch. He stayed on the flank, too—one might be fooled looking at a heat map of Ozil’s location when he attempted each of 75 passes into thinking he started as a right winger.
The effort would have been in vain, though, if not for the thoughtful adjustments of teammate Aaron Ramsey. The Welshman, more accustomed to playing in the middle but on the day fielded on the wing, tended to tuck into a central-deep position during slower phases of the game when Ozil moved outward. The rotation was not quite the same as that of 2012-2013 Madrid (with Ronaldo and Di Maria moving into the box) or the old, Fabregas-based Arsenal (with wingers crowding the edge) but the overall effect worked well—the overloads in the first half caught Napoli off-guard for each of the two goals and the additional control afforded by Ramsey’s inward movement allowed Arsenal to see out the second half comfortably.
An unexpected dilemma
Looking forward, the success of this starting XI offers an interesting, though perhaps welcome, selection headache for Wenger. Ramsey is currently on too good form to drop, and his strong interplay with Ozil suggests the flank may be his best place at the moment. Incisive passer Santi Cazorla, due back this week, could easily substitute directly for Tomas Rosicky to complete a rather creative troika behind the main striker. Much like Ozil, Cazorla likes to drift into wide areas when playing centrally and vice-versa when on the flank (most notably during his spell playing on the left of a 4-2-2-2 at Villareal). If he coordinates his movement well with the German, their partnership could be very strong.
The losers in this arrangement might be Theo Walcott and Lukas Podolski, both of whom enjoyed a great amount of minutes in the previous season. For tricky away fixtures or as a solid “plan B” at the Emirates, their more direct style might be a necessary balance to the playmakers’ deliberate build-up. But if the short-passing machine can run so smoothly against top-tier opposition, both wingers might find themselves without a starting place in what is shaping up to be, at least in the early stages, the most refined attack fielded by Arsenal since their Premier League triumph in 2003-04.
[Data was taken from FourFourTwo’s StatZone app, which is a front-end for Opta positional data.]
by Karthik Sastry
It’s amazing how quickly the world football landscape can change. On April 9, at the end of 90 minutes in a tense second leg at the Westfalenstadion in Dortmund, it appeared an un-fancied Malaga side might secure a place in a triple-Spanish semifinal at the expense of the impressive but wasteful hosts. The headlines could have written themselves: could it be that the Spanish footballing hegemony, so clear in international competition, was inescapable at the club level as well? Two dramatic stoppage-time goals for the home side, however, halted that narrative before it got off the ground. Less than three weeks later, after a tantalizing draw pitted Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund, the top two German sides of the past several years, against Spanish titans Barcelona and Real Madrid respectively in the ultimate competition for club-level supremacy, the Bundesliga representatives emphatically responded with 4-0 and 4-1 victories. Now it is the Germans who are making the more convincing claim to represent the strongest footballing nation in Europe as a Bayern-Dortmund final looms.
Perhaps this interpretation is somewhat presumptuous as both Barcelona and Madrid have incredibly strong home records, neither having lost a game on their home ground in either La Liga or European play this year (more precisely Barca has drawn once in league play and twice in continental play, Madrid twice in each). They might also recall a history of great European comebacks by Spanish sides, including Deportivo La Coruna’s famously overcoming a 1-4 deficit to A.C. Milan at the San Siro, the largest deficit overcome in the Champions League era, and the Catalans’ own defeat of the Rossoneri after a 0-2 away loss in this year’s Round of 16. For the neutral fan, each second leg clash will feature a real possibility of an un-missable, historic reversal and, regardless of the outcomes, some extremely high quality play. Here’s a quick a preview of what to watch for in these week’s matches:
Bayern vs. Barcelona
First leg recap: There was some pre-match anticipation that Bayern Munich, who lead the Bundesliga with an average 63.8% possession in matches, would attempt to beat Barcelona (who have, unsurprisingly, an even higher 69.2% figure in La Liga) at their own short-passing, ball-control game. Instead, the Bavarians happily conceded 66% possession to the visitors, only to play a devastating counter-attacking style that exposed all of the Catalans’ defensive frailties. On the break, the creative troika of Franck Ribery, Thomas Muller and Arjen Robben made chances for themselves and lone forward Mario Gomez. When Bayern did get their entire team forward, during their rare spells of long possession or set plays, three times they converted their aerial superiority, present in all areas of the pitch (having won 73% of headers), into goals. Barcelona had plenty of time on the ball, but, unsettled by the Bavarians’ physical approach, could offer no answer.
Key to the second leg: Javi Martinez’s tackling. In the first leg, the physical midfielder, acquired from Basque club Athletic Bilbao for a reported €40 million ($52 million) this past summer, was tasked with making life uncomfortable for Andres Iniesta and largely succeeded, preventing the Catalan maestro from controlling the match’s tempo alongside his partner Xavi Hernandez. Martinez actually did not have the most tackles in the match, an honor won by his own partner in the center of the pitch, Bastian Schweinsteiger, but the midfielder’s focus on disruption over all else was notable—he completed only 23 passes in the match, less than any starting outfield player on either side other than forward Mario Gomez (substituted off at 71’), but successfully made six tackles and committed six fouls (twice as many as any other player on the pitch). Very likely, Martinez was following specific instructions to shut down Iniesta from his manager Jupp Heynckes, as he averages only 2.7/1.7 domestically and 3.7/1.3 in Europe for those same statistics this year. If Barcelona finds its attacking rhythm at the Nou Camp, the team is perfectly capable of finding four goals against any side in the world; again, it will be up to Bayern’s Spaniard to impose himself in the middle of the pitch.
Prediction: If Bayern played a physical, counter-attacking game at the Allianz, they will most certainly do the same to a greater extent at the Camp Nou. Barcelona’s thinly stretched defense will also be even frailer without suspended left-back Jordi Alba. That said, it is difficult to imagine that a fitter Lionel Messi, who termed the defeat in Munich “the low point in [his] career,” and his teammates will allow themselves to be humiliated equivalently at home. A low-scoring draw seems likely; a complete turnaround would require a miraculous, but not inconceivable, Messi performance.
Dortmund vs. Madrid
First leg recap: Dortmund came out of the gates strong and found an early lead when Robert Lewandowski thumped home from Mario Gotze’s well-placed right-side cross. A poor back-pass by center-half Mats Hummels, which immediately led to a Ronaldo tap-in, seemed to let Los Blancos back into the match, but the Germans found another burst of quality at the beginning of the second half to open up a 4-1 lead, with all four goals ultimately coming from the imposing Lewandowski. Dortmund actually had only three more shots on target than the visitors (7-4) and a significantly smaller amount of possession (46%-54%), but succeeded in imposing their blisteringly quick tempo upon a Madrid side more interested in patient build-up play.
Key to the match: Mesut Ozil’s Movement. In Dortmund, Madrid manager Jose Mourinho somewhat surprisingly selected Mesut Ozil, Xabi Alonso, Sami Khedira and Luka Modric in the same team. Perhaps the decision, which forced Ozil to move to a less comfortable position on the right flank, was motivated by the necessity of Angel Di Maria’s unavailability, but it also signaled an intent to play a calmer game with, essentially, four central midfielders. The strategy, however, was unsuccessful. Dortmund’s pressing prevented Madrid from finding its rhythm in the center of the pitch, and Ozil, though he did see enough of the ball to complete 47 passes, five more than his Champions League average, had a very small influence on proceedings from his wide position.
For the second leg it appears that Sami Khedira, who played a full 90 minutes this weekend against cross-town rivals Atletico, will be dropped to the bench, allowing Ozil to move back to his favored central role. The German’s preferred move is to drift toward the flanks as a balance to teammates, including Cristiano Ronaldo and Angel Di Maria, who enjoy doing the opposite; the beauty of this strategy is that is immensely confusing for opposition holding midfielders and fullbacks, who must switch responsibilities lest they be dragged horribly out of position. In the first leg, Dortmund’s double-pivot of Ilkay Gundogan and Sven Bender were allowed to challenge Modric and Khedira directly relatively far up the pitch, and then subsequently make adventurous breaks forward (Gundogan actually had three successful dribbles in the match, one less than Marco Reus and equal with Ronaldo). Ozil, at his best, can unsettle Dortmund’s defensive midfield duo, creating space not only for himself but also Modric and Alonso behind him, freed from the constant pressure, and Ronaldo and Di Maria (potentially) on the wings.
Prediction: Mourinho stated his intent in the pre-match press conference to “try different players and a different system” in the second leg. If he can choose a side better equipped to play at a high kept tempo, then Los Blancos have a very strong chance to put goals on the board. That said, scoring three without conceding or winning by four or more otherwise is a tall task against a usually disciplined Dortmund defense. A reasonable outcome would be a one or two goal Madrid victory, insufficient to prevent the Germans from advancing.
All statistics taken from WhoScored.com
by Satyajeet Pal
For Arsenal fans, each sight of Robin van Persie scoring a goal is a reminder of the talent Arsene Wenger let slip away last summer. Yet for Manchester United fans, there has been no better spectacle than watching the Flying Dutchman play this season right where he left off.
He has been short of nothing but spectacular for the Red Devils through the first half of the season and has been worth every penny of his ₤24 million ($38.7 million) transfer free from the Gunners plus his ₤250,000-a-week wages. Let’s take a look at exactly what RvP has meant for Manchester United this season:
Van Persie has been exactly the striker Sir Alex Ferguson hoped he would be, continuing his goal scoring streak from last season. So far this season, van Persie has scored 27 goals in 36 combined Premier League and Champions League appearances (24 from 31, and 3 from 5, respectively), for a whopping average of 0.75 goals per appearance. This is down from a season-high of 0.78 goals per appearance through mid-January following a spell of a few goalless games in March.
For comparison, last season at Arsenal he had 37 goals in 48 appearances and 30 goals from 38 appearances in the Premier League. Last year, in all competitions, the forward had an average of 0.77 goals per appearance. Both these figures represent a sizeable jump from his career average of 0.46 goals per appearance (including the most recent two years of his career).
Even after receiving his huge contract from Manchester United, van Persie’s performance (at least in terms of goals) has not seemed to dropped off at all. In fact, he seems to have become an even more prolific scorer after his move to United. What’s impressive about his goal scoring tally this year is that it hasn’t dropped off despite the talent that surrounds him. In his last season at Arsenal, van Persie scored 39.4% of his side’s goals and Theo Walcott was the next leading scorer with 11 goals. This season he is scoring 34.6% of his team’s goals; Wayne Rooney is the second leading scorer with 13 and Chicharito with 11. No matter who is around him, RvP seems to be getting his chances and very often converting them.
It’s hard to argue that van Persie doesn’t deserve the PFA player of the year again after his stellar season last year. Luis Suarez and Gareth Bale are in the discussion but van Persie has maintained his high level after switching teams last summer and has led Manchester United to the Premier League title this season. He has slotted in well with all the playmakers around him, Rooney, Kagawa, Carrick, and Valencia, producing the goals (often game-winning) for his team. The Red Devils will look to continue their dominance this weekend as they take on Robin van Persie’s old club, Arsenal.
Data from whoscored.com
Princeton Sports Analytics writers Max Kaplan and Philip Chang are stat nerds. They have just returned from the so-called Geekapalooza, MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference in Boston. The conference included many faces of the sports analytics world, including Daryl Morey, Nate Silver, Mark Cuban, and many others. However, there were also ex-coaches and GM’s who were also behind the learning curve. Here is a discussion between Max and Philip about the most interesting aspects of the conference.
Max Kaplan: Sup, Phil. 2 days. 2700 people. 1000 Students. Dozens of panels. Who did you find most interesting among the panels?
Anyway, while the opening panel Revenge of the Nerds (this year, featuring Mark Cuban, Nate Silver, Daryl Morey, Paraag Marathe, and Michael Lewis) in past years has been the conference’s highlight, it really featured a lot more fluff than I had expected. There was almost no observation of the analytical aspect itself; rather, it seemed to be more of a discussion of different applications of those statistics, and how the structure of player/team evaluation has changed throughout the years. Not that that’s a bad thing, but that steered me away in response to your question, and thus, *upset pick* I really gotta say that the “Predictive Sports Betting Analytics” panel seemed the most contentious and informative of the bunch.
MK: Upset pick? What was the spread? Or the least you could do is explain to me why you were interested in the gambling panel.
PC: Haha, good one. Gambling is typically seen as a “dirty” part of sports, but through the eyes of professional NBA bettor Haralabos Voulgaris, and his interaction with “21” star Jeff Ma, bettor blogger Chad Millman, and director of bookkeeping organization Matthew Holt, we were able to examine how practically sports games, and seasons, could be predicted based on a) the models one chooses, and b) how closely one follows that sports. Haralabos (Bob) described how he closely followed the NBA, which allowed him to place bets with winning strategies on particular games. For the gaming commission, however, it was much more difficult because Holt and his compadres have to place lines on nearly every sporting competition on the planet, with not nearly as much research on a particular competition as Bob has had. To me, it seemed to be a really interesting, practical, and eye-opening discussion that captured exactly what is possible to predict in sports with purely a model, and how those models sometimes don’t take into effect things like lockout seasons, personal issues, etc. Thoughts?
By Raghav Gandotra
Ba Bye! No Loic either!
During the Arsenal-Newcastle game, commentator Andy Gray remarked “What would they do without him?” reacting to Demba Ba’s second goal to bring Newcastle on level terms with Arsenal for the third time in the game. The answer to this question must be found by Newcastle manager Alan Pardew and soon, for a Ba-less Newcastle has unfortunately become the grim reality for everyone at St. James’ Park with Ba’s departure to Chelsea on a three and a half-year deal. Ba’s contribution to Newcastle was monumental; he scored 13 out of the 27 goals they have scored in the Premiership. Fellow strikers Papiss Cisse and Shola Ameobi have been inconsistent with a combined tally of 5 goals this season and with Newcastle currently languishing in 16th place, there could not have been a worse time for Ba’s departure. Alan Pardew must look for reinforcements. Even with prime target Loic Remy being snapped up by some late in the day wizardry by QPR manager Harry Redknapp, Newcastle cannot say they are out of options. We explore some of these:
This out of favor West Ham United forward would be ideal for Pardew to replenish his squad. He is fast off the ball, excellent with the ball at his feet and is also a substantial aerial presence standing tall at 6ft 2inches. He is also not afraid to try unconventional methods to get the ball into the net with some spectacular bicycle kicks during his time with Sochaux. Though his innate talent and commitment cannot be questioned, he is yet to find his feet in English football having been largely unimpressive during his short spell with Newcastle scoring 2 goals in 14 appearances. He will cost something in the region of £6.5 million.
This beast from Eredivisie Club Vitesse Arnhem possesses all the characteristics Pardew is looking for in a striker and more. He is powerful in the air and what he lacks in raw pace he makes up with fantastic dribbling ability. Coupled with this, a fantastic right foot and an uncanny knack of scoring late goals makes him the ideal man for Pardew to have at St. James’ Park. His 16 goals this season at a rate of 0.89 goals per game has made him an integral part of the current Vitesse side. With Newcastle getting something in the vicinity of £7.5 million from Ba’s departure, they do possess the financial resources to go after Bony who is valued around the £7 million mark.
Odemwingie has been a special player for West Bromwich Albion, holding the record for scoring the most goals (15) in a season as a West Brom player(2010-11). Yet the fickle nature of Premiership soccer finds him being pushed down the pecking order at the Hawthorns with some noteworthy performances by powerful striker Romelu Lukaku who has come here on a season loan. There is no doubt though, that he still possesses the speed, killer instinct and excellent first touch which made him such a potent threat in the first place. At the age of 31, Odemwingie cannot expect to play many more years in the top flight of soccer and would be looking to get as much playing time as possible. With Lukaku’s future at West Brom uncertain, Steve Clarke will not want to be too hasty in agreeing to a permanent deal for Odemwingie. A loan deal should be acceptable for both parties, though maybe not for the player.