Rob Minto

Sport, data, ideas

Category: football (page 1 of 2)

In (partial) defence of Fifa’s 48-team World Cup plan

The format of 32 has proven to be the perfect formula from all perspectives…

So said the EFA. But not quite all perspectives, and certainly not the one which counts most: Fifa’s.

The World Cup has been 32 teams since 1998. It starts with 8 groups of 4, top two go to the knockout round. It’s mathematically ideal and beautiful in every way.

So why change it? You can read good summaries on the BBC, Guardian, and also the Mail on typical jingoistic form (Burkina Faso but not Scotland!). The best analysis is here on the Economist. But aside from the politics and possible extra cash, is it so awful to destroy the perfect 32-game Cup?

Yes and no. Yes, for all the reasons linked to above. Yes because it makes the structure far less neat. No, because more teams from smaller nations is an admirable motive. So let’s look at the structure.

Fifa is suggesting 16 groups of 3, top two to knock out. That means two group games for each team, rather than three; and five knock out matches rather than four through to the final.

The initial negative reaction is based on three unavoidable things: fewer big teams will meet at the group stage; three in a group means final group matches might result in boring draws if both teams are through to the next stage; and fewer group matches means 16 teams get only two matches before heading home, rather than the current minimum of three.

Let’s unpick each one. Continue reading

Sport Geek #64: The goalkeeper and the three bullies

Football pundits, eh? Say what you like about them… actually, you can’t.

Not if you are a struggling goalkeeper at Liverpool. Loris Karius has overstepped the mark, it seems, in defending himself – rather than his goal – against Gary Neville.

Stay with me on this one. It’s a he said, Neville-said story. Continue reading

Euro 2016: survival of the weak

euro numbersThe Euros start today. And go on for a bit, and a bit longer, and then eventually there will be a final, I promise.

If you feel that there’s something not quite right about this edition of the quadrennial, you’d be spot on. It comes down to the numbers.

In previous editions, the Euros were contested by 16 teams. Four groups of four, top two go to the quarter finals and so on. Great. But this edition is 24 teams.

Let’s take a step back: how did we get to 24 teams?

Well, it started with 53 teams, divided into nine groups of six (and one of 5). In those groups, the top two went through, plus a third place team, and then the other eight third place teams had a playoff.

From 53 to 23 (plus the hosts) isn’t much of a cut off. To compare, the World Cup for 2018 goes from 210 to 31 teams, and the UEFA (ie European) part of that goes from 54 teams to just 13 (plus Russia as hosts).

So rather than eliminate 76 per cent of the European teams in qualifying, as the World Cup does (the overall rate is 85 per cent), the Euros eliminated just 57 per cent of the teams in qualifying.

That basically means you can be a very average team and still get through to the finals. Obviously, not the Netherlands, but that’s another story.

And then there’s the finals themselves. The Guardian have done it brilliantly: a tournament of 24 is a terrible number. To get to the knock out stages of 16 teams (rather than 8 as before), you are eliminating not half, but just a third of teams from the group stage.

In other words – 53 goes to 23 (plus host), 24 goes to 16, then it’s a knockout (with some severely complicated rules along the way).

It’s almost harder to fail than it is to progress.

 

What can Fifa learn from other voting systems?

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Everyone agrees that Fifa needs to change. But what about the tricky question of members’ votes? In general, the argument seems to go like this: Continue reading

PSG: liberty, fraternity, inequality

473809032Sport is inherently unequal. Talent and skills are not distributed fairly, and it would be a far more boring world if they were.

But when it comes to the wages that are paid to players, some leagues prefer a fairer system – especially in the US – and some are content with a less equal system. Some are downright ridiculous.

The data provided each year by Sporting Intelligence highlights the haves and have-nots by comparing average team wages in 333 teams across many major leagues. As ever, the American sports leagues are notable by their evenness. In the NFL, for example, the top paying team, the Miami Dolphins, pay an average annual salary of £1.37m per player. The lowest payers are the New York Jets, with £1.01m per player. That’s across 32 teams. The difference top to bottom is just £357,000.

Let’s look at some of the major European football leagues by way of comparison. The contrast and variation is astonishing. Continue reading

Chelsea’s lack of penalties is completely normal – here’s why

466393940Chelsea took the unusual step of publishing an official moan about their lack of penalties this season. It has been widely reported (Guardian, BBC), but without anyone really taking them to task on the data. But a little statistical digging might have shown that they have nothing to complain about.

The Chelsea article said:

It is in our 28 Premier League games this season where we have been awarded just two penalties. Both were for infringements on the league’s most-fouled player, Eden Hazard, and both were in home London derbies, against Arsenal and QPR respectively. The most recent was four-and-a-half months ago.

Historically, this figure seems abnormally low.

In the Double-winning 2009/10 campaign, when we were the country’s outstanding attacking team, we were awarded 12 league penalties.

So let’s look at the evidence. The numbers that Chelsea point to only look at their own penalties awarded. Statistically, it’s known as sampling bias, but you don’t need to know that to see that it is a bunch of numbers out of context.

What we really care about is a few things: how many penalties should a team expect over a season? Are better teams given more penalties? And how do the league winners compare? The only way to know this is to (with apologies to Peter Moores) look at the data.

Chelsea did indeed get 12 penalties in 2009-10. But this is an outlier – in fact, for all the penalties data I could get from the 1998-99 season onwards, it is the highest number given to one team in a single season.

Two other teams have also been awarded 12 penalties in one campaign. Can you guess which teams they are? Have a go. Other league winners? Nope. In fact, it was Liverpool, in 2013-14 when they finished second; and Crystal Palace, in 2004-05, finishing in 18th place!

That might give a clue as to whether league position and penalties are connected. Basically, they are not. They are very weakly correlated, by a score of -0.28. *

Over a season, the average penalties per team per season has varied between two and six. And in the 16 years of available data, the Premier League winners have had a lower penalty count than the average team five times. That leaves 11 times when it has been higher (see chart below). Yes, you would expect the league winners to play attacking football and get a more penalties than the league average, as Chelsea suggest – but for Chelsea to get less than the average this season is hardly unprecedented.

EPL penalties

Put another way: only four times in the sixteen years of data have the team winning the league also been awarded the most penalties (Arsenal 2001-02, Manchester United 2002-03, 2007-08 and Chelsea 2009-10). Penalties are not some divine right of the best team. History shows that a team can be given a lot of penalties and still finish low down the league. Just ask Palace. Or Sunderland (6 penalties, 14th place last year). Or Blackpool (8 penalties, 19th place in 2010-11). Or West Ham (9 penalties, 17th place in 2009-10).

In other words: Chelsea’s current lack of penalties is nothing strange. It’s just… football.

* A negative number should be expected here, as a better league position is a lower number. For penalties and league position to be correlated, a score closer to -1 would be needed. For those wondering, it is very weakly positively correlated to the points a team gets over a season, with a score of 0.32.

A Qatar winter World Cup is no bad thing

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Isn’t Fifa simply awful? Having awarded Qatar the 2022 World Cup in less-than-savoury circumstances, now it has the brass neck to move the event to Winter to avoid the scorching heat! Shame.

A quick read of most opinion pages suggests that this is a terrible idea for a clutch of reasons: Europe’s football leagues are thrown into disarray; outdoor screenings won’t work; it will ruin Christmas; the NFL(!) will compete with US attention; it’s a summer event, dammit.

Let’s quickly dismiss a few of the frothier objections: pubs will do fine; it won’t ruin Christmas; do we seriously think the US can only watch one sport at a time? So it is supposed to be a summer event. But having given Qatar the tournament in such a dodgy way, this is hardly the biggest thing to get worked up about.

But how about those European leagues being messed about? Surely there’s something in that?

Well, there are two options. One is to suspend matches while the World Cup is on. The other is to keep playing.

For some reason, only option 1 seems to be the course of action. In which case, La Liga and the Premier League and others will have to start a few weeks early and finish a few weeks late. Hardly the end of the world, is it? The Guardian has put together how the season might look, and, to me, it doesn’t seem too bad.

But what about option 2: play on? That’s what the leagues do during the African Cup of Nations, after all. It is also what county cricket teams do when England play Tests, T20, and One-day Internationals. It’s what the rugby clubs do when the 6 Nations and Autumn internationals are on.

What would the impact be on the leagues? Well, if we take the 2014 World Cup as any guide, the breakdown of players from each league went like this:

League World Cup players
England 119
Italy 81
Germany 78
Spain 64
France 46
Russia 34
Mexico 26
Turkey 26
Portugal 23
Netherlands 20

At first glance, it’s pretty obvious that the leagues that will be most hampered in 2022 are those of England, Italy, Germany and Spain. However, In terms of the overall players, Germany’s World Cup burden is slightly higher than Italy’s, as the league has 18 teams compared to the 20 in the others. If we use the current squad sizes of all the teams in those four leagues, around 21 per cent of the Premiership’s 550-plus players would be off to the World Cup, over 15 per cent of the Bundesliga’s players, just under 15 per cent of Serie A would go, and 12 per cent of La Liga. It’s hardly an entire league – the Premiership would lose one in five players.

But of course, the burden isn’t spread equally around. In 2014 the Premiership had five clubs (Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City and Manchester United) with 10 or more players going to the World Cup. All the other teams had 6 or fewer. In other leagues there was a similar skewing: Bayern Munich had 15 World Cup representatives, Barcelona had 13 and Real Madrid had 12. Juventus and Napoli had 12 players in Brazil 2014.

What would the solution be? If the leagues insisted in playing during the World Cup, their biggest clubs would suffer disproportionately. In the era of vastly unequal resources, that might be a rather positive outcome: in the run up to 2022, the bigger clubs would have to expand their squads with home-grown and non-international players; it might mean they become reluctant to sign a World Cup-bound player. However, this isn’t for the entire season – it’s probably for six or seven matches. It would make the league more uncertain, that’s for sure. Smaller teams such as Southampton and West Ham might well vote for it. In fact, put to an equal vote, the majority of Premiership clubs should be in favour of continuing to play during the World Cup.

However, the big clubs are never going to go along with this. For example, Chelsea, with a first team squad of 24 including 12 World Cup players, would struggle to field a team without calling up a host of reserves.

The bigger issue would be gate receipts and advertising. Shorn of the bigger star names, bar the odd exception (such as Gareth Bale), the big European clubs would face a temporary tail-off of interest. It would be a “downgraded product”. And that would never do. Competing head-on with the World Cup would only have one winner: fans want to see the best players in action.

Given that the Premiership seems utterly focused on squeezing every commercial drop it can, the idea of playing on is a non-starter. Which is a shame, as football in England and Spain could do with a rebalancing of power, however temporary.

The only other scenario in which the European leagues would play on is if they force their players to boycott the World Cup. The ramifications of that would be huge. In fact, it would be the most divisive moment in football history, and possibly spell the end of international football in its current form.

Somehow, I don’t think Fifa will let that happen.

3 reasons why the Premier League deal should be no surprise

It looks huge – a $5.1 deal, 70 per cent up on the previous one. The English Premier League certainly knows how to sell itself.

But amid all the mutterings of how the money won’t filter down to the grass roots and smaller clubs, or Alan Sugar’s lovely image of “prune juice”, here are three reasons why we shouldn’t be surprised.

1) Sky

Sky paid £4.2bn for their match packages. Sounds a lot, until you realise that in 2014, Sky made £7.6bn in revenue, and a profit before tax of £1.1bn. Also, this is a three-year deal, so for Sky it works out as £1.4bn per year. In short – the company can clearly afford it. Assuming that the advertisers are still keen, and the public keep subscribing, it could be a great deal.

Of course, the extra money won’t be squandered, from Sky’s point of view. Every big money transfer to the Premier League adds to the allure, so they aren’t just spending money on a fixed asset – they are spending on future improvements too. If English clubs can outspend Spanish rivals, it’s basically free marketing for Sky.

2) BT

BT have become a serious football broadcast player. They snapped up the Champion’s League TV rights, and have again bid up for the Premier League. Increased competition over a fixed supply means higher prices, as any economist will tell you.

3) Lessons of the NFL

It has a bigger domestic audience, obviously, but the NFL has done a very good job of squeezing the broadcasters for cash, with an annualised $5bn-plus deal with several broadcasters over eight years. While this is about double what the British broadcasters are paying (after converting dollars into sterling), there is a remarkable similarity in the increase from the previous deal.

The NFL secured a total $3.1bn TV rights deal for the 2006-13 seasons. That then went up to over $5bn for 2014-21. The Premier League had a £3bn deal for 2013-16, and now £5.1bn for 2016-19. It’s a highly similar increase: 62-plus per cent for the NFL, 70 per cent for the Premier League.

Is it such a surprise that sports broadcasters (albeit in different countries for different sports) have upped their valuation of TV rights by the same amount at a similar time?

It would be nice to see more money going to places other than players’ salaries and agents. But in a commercial world, the Premier League deal is less surprising than the wide-eyed coverage from the media who run every news snippet about football that they possibly can.

When it comes to FA Cup upsets, size is subjective

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Bradford: biggest shock EVER?

What’s the biggest FA Cup shock defeat ever? For Robbie Fowler, it’s the Chelsea 4-2 loss to Bradford from yesterday (Jan 24). And in terms of drama, it’s clearly a great story. After all, Chelsea were 2-0 up and at home.

But for league placings, it’s not even close. With Chelsea top of the premiership, and Bradford 7th in League 1 (the third tier, despite its name), there are 39 teams between them.

Compare that to the 84 teams between Blackburn and Oxford in 1964, which according to Steve Porter, author of The Giant Killers website is the greatest FA Cup upset ever. Blackburn were 2nd at the time in the top division; Oxford were 18th in league 4.

Porter, who writes under the name Captain Beecher, ranks the upsets in terms of league placings, combined with a player quality metric using internationals and previous cup winners. Porter doesn’t spell out his methodology, but it’s clearly better than just using collective memory and non-scientific lists published in newspapers.

Porter sums up the problem perfectly:

On BBC’s Match of the Day programme, when asking the public if Bradford’s victory over Chelsea was the greatest cupset ever, they showed twelve of what they considered the greatest giant killings of all time. Every game had one thing in common. The BBC TV cameras were there. Not one game which was not covered by the BBC was considered. And so shapes our opinion. If you’re told something was a huge giant killing enough times {7th placed top flight Wimbledon beating Champions, Liverpool 1-0 in 1988. Surprise? yes but giant killing? Really? 7th vs 1st in the Premier League?} You start to accept that it’s true. ITV are a little more impartial, perhaps because they don’t have as much cup footage to be able to make lists exclusively thiers. The problem when compiling such lists is that every time a particular tie is overlooked, it’s chances of being placed in the next TV countdown, or magazine article diminishes.

And where does Porter’s system put Chelsea-Bradford? It’s 15th on his all-time list. Not bad, but it is interesting that it is lower down than non-league Luton’s 1-0 victory over the Premiership’s Norwich only 2 seasons ago, which is in 7th place. That didn’t even make the BBC’s list in the studio analysis. Memories are short, eh?

Being subjective, turning round a 2-goal deficit to 4-2 at Stamford Bridge is an extraordinary result. But perhaps the BBC could, with all its resources, dig up a few proper stats like Porter’s.

See also:
Interactive football league tables

Gary Neville and the lost art of statistics

What is Gary Neville talking about? He seems to think that defending is a lost art, one that is “never coming back”. End of an era stuff.

To be fair, his column on how defensive training in football is dying is very interesting and is full of insights. However the way he uses statistics to back up his argument is very wide of the mark.

Here’s the key paragraph in full:

If you look at the Premier League goalscoring chart, it bursts into the thousands from 2010 on. There were 942 goals in 2009 and 1052 last season. That’s a huge shift. Once you have a five-year trend of more goals being conceded and more scored it starts to look irreversible. It points to a permanent change in the sport.

Sadly, the Telegraph don’t provide the aforementioned chart. If they did, you would see this *:

To say that it “bursts into the thousands” is very misleading. The 1,000-goals-per-season mark (or 380 game equivalent) has been reached several times in the Premiership before, in 2008, 2004, 2003, 2002, 2000, 1998 and 1993. ** Neville has extrapolated a whole argument from a one season shift from 2009 to 2010.

Back in Neville’s heyday, the 1999-2000 season, there were 1,060 goals scored. And in his first season as a professional, 1992, which coincidentally was the first Premiership season, there were 1,222 goals, which equates to 1,005 goals in a 20-team league.

Never mind getting his own era wrong, Neville looks back further:

perhaps the very bold formations and big scorelines of the 1940s and 50s are what we are heading back to. Maybe attacking football was in hibernation during the 70s, 80s and 90s, when organisation and structure prevailed. Maybe now we are seeing football as it was intended.

So let’s look at the goals per game for the English top flight from 1940 to now ***.

It’s clear from the chart that we have a long way to go before we are at the 3.5-plus goals per game average of the 1950s. It’s just wrong to suggest that is where “we are heading back to” from the data available. Since 1970, there is a very clear goals-per-game level of 2.5 to 2.8. Perhaps we will get up to 3 goals per game – that would be significant. But we are not there yet.

Also, the chart bears no relation to Neville’s assertion that the 1970s, 80s and 90s were a period of attacking hibernation. If so, we are still in hibernation compared to the 1950s.

What we can say with confidence is that the goals-per-season is trending up, slightly. The change from 2009 to 2010 was quite big. But that’s about it.

But why let the real statistics get in the way of a good story? Defending is clearly in the eye of the beholder. Gary Neville was a fine proponent of the art, but his use of numbers is flaky at best.

Statistical notes:

* I have included the goals per game or 380 game equivalent for the current season.

** There were 1,195 goals in 1994 and 1995. The Premiership was initially a 22-team league, changed to 20 teams in 1994-95.

*** Data is from Worldfootball.net

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