Moneyball has been discussed on ToffeeWeb before, and is responsible I think for a general raising of awareness about statistics in football. The Moneyball model is to judge players statistically on the actual outcomes they produce, rather than how good they look — the idea being that we can then make more objective judgements of players, rather than relying on traditional subjective ones. However, none of this is really my main point, I want to look objectively at what could be considered a ‘good result’, rather than judging players individually.
I remember reading or hearing about Mourinho’s attitude to winning the league being something along the lines of this: Take the bottom half of teams in the league, beat them all home and away, and then you only need to find about 25-30 points in 18 games against the top half. Obviously you will drop points against some of the lower teams, but then you have to make them up in games against top-half teams. This basically leaves you only ever having to draw the big games, and gives you a huge advantage tactically in not feeling you have to take risks to force a result. Though very few talk about this overtly, occasionally other managers give away the idea that certain games are targeted as ‘result’ games, where others would be considered bonuses.
So what is our equivalent of this? Well I’ve always worked roughly off the ‘win your home games, draw your away games’ principle. This would actually give us 76 points, which we’ve never achieved in the Premier League era. Looking back two seasons we achieved 72 points, and because it’s easier to deal in rounded numbers, let’s say our realistic target is 70 pts. This would have achieved 4th place last season.
In fact Man Utd came 4th with a record of P38 W20 D10 L8. These are nice easy numbers to use, so I’ll base the following on them. This means we should be happy with, or accept a home record of P19 W13 D4 L2 and an away record of P19 W7 D6 L6. Mapping this onto last season’s league table gives us a sense of who we should be beating, who it is okay to draw against, and who we could lose to without it actually costing us.
If you’re still with me, this means that we should beat last season’s 7th place, and everyone below, at home, draw with 3rd-6th and defeat at home to the top two would be far from disastrous. Similarly we should look to beat the bottom seven away from home (substituting in the newly promoted sides for the relegated sides), draw with the next six, and not get our knickers in a twist at losing to the top six away from home.
Of course, results in the real world don’t actually map like this but, if you’ve made it this far into what I’m saying, you’ll probably fully grasp that, for every bottom team we don’t beat, we have to replace that result with a victory over someone we could have drawn against... and so on.
So far this season, this means our fixtures have been the following:
Watford (H) (should've won) D 2-2 (-2 pts)
Southampton (A) (should've drawn) W 3-0 (+2 pts)
Man City (H) (could afford to lose) L 0-2 (-)
Tottenham (A) (should've drawn) D 0-0 (-)
Chelsea (H) (could afford to lose) W 3-1 (+3 pts)
Swansea (A) (should've drawn) D 0-0 (-)
This means we’ve only had one bad result, if we are setting our target as 70 pts, and are in fact on course for 73 pts as of now, because both our wins can be considered ‘good’ results. It also means that the West Brom away game comes in (just) as one we should expect to draw without having fallen off track.
Two important things to finish off with. Firstly, this certainly doesn’t mean I’m advocating not trying to win those games we can afford to draw or lose; we don’t want 70 pts to be a limit, but in the mid-range of our targets as something achievable and realistic. It’s more about giving a sense of objective perspective on what our results actually mean at the time. In fact, I fully believe we can go to West Brom and win, and that we should be prepared to take a little risk or two to do so... but, if we do get a draw, we’re still on for 73 pts and 4th place.
The other important point is that results will regularly be outside this mapping out process, but the key issue is that, when we drop points somewhere, we need to pick them up somewhere else. We can refer to this as substitutability. This in fact identifies winning home games against ‘lesser’ sides as an absolutely crucial area for us.
This is something we did well in 2013-14, and it was a huge problem last season, when – although we didn’t lose many – we consistently dropped two points against teams we should have expected to beat. This is why I’ve mentioned before that once our opening 10 game ‘horror’ fixture list is over, we actually face a bigger challenge to be consistent against the ‘lower’ teams, and relentlessly pick up the points we’ll need to reach the 70 mark and challenge seriously for 4th place.
So, whilst we all want to win every game, perhaps there is a place for a little perspective in analysing whether we are doing things wrong that need changing, or whether in fact we are on track and right to persist with things that seem to be working.