On Winning Close Matches II: What about losing close matches?

Stu Forster

In my last piece, I looked at clubs who have overperformed in close matches, and I found they have little tendency to continue to win close matches. This time, I'm looking at sides who have won most of their blowouts but done relatively poorly in close matches. With bonus "two points from eight games" commentary.

I showed in my most recent article that winning close matches without also winning a good number on non-close matches is not a sustainable strategy. Tottenham Hotspur have survived a lot of subpar play in the first half of the season because they have been very clutch in their goal-scoring. We shouldn't expect that to continue. It's entirely possible that Spurs will go ahead and just play better, but they'll need to play quite a bit better if they want to take 34 points from their next 19 matches.

(I wasn't just negative on Spurs. I also made the case that Cardiff have been staying afloat on the back of performance in close matches, and Malky Mackay may have been fortunate to get out of there before the club is relegated. So overall I was pretty much a big downer all over the place in that article.)

This time, I want to look at the flipside. How about clubs who have not won as many close matches as you'd expect while performing well, or well enough, in non-close matches. This year, the two most notable clubs in this regard are Manchester City and Swansea City. Manchester City have won 10 of 10 matches decided by more than a goal, but are only 4-2-4 in matches decided by one or fewer goals. Swansea have not been dominant in non-close matches, but their solid 4-3 mark in such games makes their 1-6-6 record in close matches stand out. From thirteen close matches, the Swans have taken only nine points while they have twelve from seven non-close matches.

My hypothesis would be that both of these clubs are likely to improve in the second half of the season. What I found is that in fact we should probably only project one of them to improve.

Manchester City: Even Great Teams Regress to the Mean

First, I collected the numbers on sides which, like City, won almost all their blowouts while performing at a kind of blah level in close matches. I found that these sides do improve in close matches in the second half of the season, but they usually also regress to the mean in their non-close matches. 30 points from 10 matches is a crazy rate, even for a really really good side.

Club 1Cl W 1CL D 1CL L 1NC W 1NC L 2Cl W 2Cl D 2Cl L 2NC W 2NC L 1 Pts/M 2 Pts/M 1Cl Pts 2Cl Pts
Liverpool 04-05 4 4 5 6 1 6 3 5 1 3 1.70 1.33 1.23 1.50
Manchester City 04-05 3 6 8 3 0 4 7 2 3 2 1.20 1.56 0.88 1.46
Tottenham Hotspur 04-05 5 5 6 3 1 2 5 3 4 4 1.45 1.28 1.25 1.10
Arsenal 05-06 4 3 4 6 2 1 4 4 9 1 1.74 1.79 1.36 0.78
Manchester City 05-06 4 4 7 4 1 3 0 8 2 5 1.40 0.83 1.07 0.82
Arsenal 06-07 4 6 4 6 1 5 5 2 4 1 1.71 1.88 1.29 1.67
Everton 06-07 2 7 4 6 2 3 6 3 4 1 1.48 1.59 1.00 1.25
Portsmouth 06-07 4 5 5 6 1 4 7 2 0 4 1.67 1.12 1.21 1.46
Aston Villa 07-08 4 6 3 5 2 2 6 2 5 3 1.65 1.50 1.38 1.20
Everton 07-08 2 3 5 8 2 5 5 4 4 0 1.65 1.78 0.90 1.43
Portsmouth 07-08 1 7 3 7 2 3 2 2 5 6 1.55 1.44 0.91 1.57
Chelsea 08-09 1 6 2 11 0 8 2 1 5 2 2.10 2.28 1.00 2.36
Arsenal 09-10 2 2 2 11 2 3 4 3 7 2 2.16 1.79 1.33 1.30
Aston Villa 09-10 4 5 3 6 2 4 8 1 3 2 1.75 1.61 1.42 1.54
Bolton Wanderers 10-11 3 8 4 4 1 3 2 7 2 4 1.45 0.94 1.13 0.92
Manchester City 10-11 4 5 3 7 1 6 3 3 4 2 1.90 1.83 1.42 1.75
Liverpool 11-12 3 7 2 6 1 1 3 8 4 3 1.79 0.95 1.33 0.50
Arsenal 12-13 2 6 3 7 1 7 4 2 5 1 1.74 2.11 1.09 1.92
Manchester City 13-14 4 2 4 10 0 2.20 1.40
Total 56 95 73 112 23 70 76 62 71 46 1.67 1.54 1.17 1.38

As you can see, these clubs averaged 1.17 points from each close match in the first half of the season, and 1.38 from close matches in the second half. That's real improvement. However, they also averaged 2.49 points in non-close matches in the first half and dropped to 1.82 in the second. For most of these sides, they weren't actually that amazing to begin with, or the just faced some normal regression to the mean.

There are exceptions. Arsenal last season were 2-6-3 in close matches in the first half of the year, while winning almost all their non-close matches. The improved in close matches to 7-4-2 in their second half run while retaining the same form in blowouts. I'd suggest that with Arsenal we see an example of a club that was probably really good all season, but they happened to win more than their share of close matches in the second half, and fewer than their share in the first.

Chelsea in 08-09 and Arsenal in 09-10 are probably the best comparisons for this year's Manchester City, and they didn't significantly improve in the second half even though they did continue to win most of their close matches. These numbers suggest that while Manchester City have probably been unfortunate to take only 1.4 points on average from close matches, they don't necessarily forecast to take the league by storm in the second half.

Swansea City: Better Days Ahead

My projections have consistently placed Swansea City safely in the midtable and over 50 points all season, despite their continued unimpressive points total. Their underlying stats, and indeed their goals scored and conceded totals, have been perfectly fine. They've just failed to perform in the clutch, and in thirteen matches which ended in a draw or with a one-goal difference, they've won only one. Clubs of this sort usually improve by a good bit in the second half.

Club 1Cl W 1CL D 1CL L 1NC W 1NC L 2Cl W 2Cl D 2Cl L 2NC W 2NC L 1 Pts/M 2 Pts/M
Fulham 05-06 4 5 9 1 1 8 1 3 1 5 1.00 1.56
Tottenham Hotspur 07-08 2 6 5 4 3 1 7 2 4 4 1.20 1.22
Manchester City 08-09 0 4 6 6 4 6 1 4 3 4 1.10 1.56
Tottenham Hotspur 08-09 3 5 8 2 2 7 4 3 2 2 1.00 1.72
West Ham United 09-10 1 6 6 3 4 2 5 4 2 5 0.90 0.94
Wigan Athletic 09-10 2 4 5 3 5 3 5 6 1 4 1.00 0.89
Fulham 10-11 1 10 4 2 2 2 6 3 6 2 1.00 1.58
Swansea City 11-12 0 8 3 4 4 4 3 1 4 7 1.05 1.42
Southampton 12-13 1 5 5 3 5 2 9 3 3 2 0.89 1.26
Swansea City 13-14 1 6 6 4 3 1.05
Total 14 53 51 28 30 35 41 29 26 35 1.02 1.35

I figure the most interesting name here is Spurs 08-09. Two points from eight games? It turns out that seven of those eight were decided by no more than one goal. Spurs under Juande Ramos were 0-2-5 in close matches, improving to a quite good 10-7-6 under Redknapp. This is not to say, at all, that the difference was "all luck." One-goal resutls are certainly not just random. But it does suggest that there was a lot of poor fortune in those early results. Indeed, that the club played as well as they did over the remainder of the season likewise suggests that the talent was there from the beginning.

Good Teams Do Win More: Some Baselines for Close Match Performance

So, to what degree is performance in close matches sustainable? To look at this question, what I want to do is set some baselines. I've taken the clubs in the last decade that were the best and the worst at winning matches that weren't close, to see how they played in matches that were close. I figure these give us some good baselines. Any club winning a lot more close matches than Sir Alex Ferguson's United are probably not going to sustain that performance. Likewise with any clubs that win fewer close matches than Derby County or Reading.

First, here are the best sides of the last decade, by record in matches decided by more than a goal. On average, they won about 40-50% of their close matches, taking about 1.6 points per match.

Club Cl W Cl D Cl L NC W NC L Pts/M Cl Pts/M NC
Arsenal 04-05 8 8 3 17 2 1.68 2.68
Chelsea 04-05 12 8 1 17 0 2.10 3.00
Manchester United 04-05 9 11 2 13 3 1.73 2.44
Arsenal 05-06 5 7 8 15 3 1.10 2.50
Chelsea 05-06 10 4 4 19 1 1.89 2.85
Liverpool 05-06 11 7 2 14 4 2.00 2.33
Manchester United 05-06 10 8 2 15 3 1.90 2.50
Arsenal 06-07 9 11 6 10 2 1.46 2.50
Chelsea 06-07 13 11 2 11 1 1.92 2.75
Everton 06-07 5 13 7 10 3 1.12 2.31
Liverpool 06-07 5 8 6 15 4 1.21 2.37
Manchester United 06-07 9 5 5 19 0 1.68 3.00
Arsenal 07-08 10 11 3 14 0 1.71 3.00
Chelsea 07-08 15 10 1 10 2 2.12 2.50
Everton 07-08 7 8 9 12 2 1.21 2.57
Liverpool 07-08 8 13 2 13 2 1.61 2.60
Manchester United 07-08 9 6 5 18 0 1.65 3.00
Arsenal 08-09 6 12 3 14 3 1.43 2.47
Chelsea 08-09 9 8 3 16 2 1.75 2.67
Everton 08-09 7 12 6 10 3 1.32 2.31
Liverpool 08-09 9 11 1 16 1 1.81 2.82
Manchester United 08-09 16 6 2 12 2 2.25 2.57
Arsenal 09-10 5 6 5 18 4 1.31 2.45
Chelsea 09-10 8 5 4 19 2 1.71 2.71
Manchester City 09-10 5 13 4 13 3 1.27 2.44
Manchester United 09-10 8 4 4 19 3 1.75 2.59
Arsenal 10-11 8 11 6 11 2 1.40 2.54
Chelsea 10-11 6 8 6 15 3 1.30 2.50
Manchester City 10-11 10 8 6 11 3 1.58 2.36
Manchester United 10-11 11 11 3 12 1 1.76 2.77
Arsenal 11-12 12 7 8 9 2 1.59 2.45
Manchester City 11-12 9 5 5 19 0 1.68 3.00
Manchester United 11-12 10 5 3 18 2 1.94 2.70
Tottenham Hotspur 11-12 5 9 5 15 4 1.26 2.37
Arsenal 12-13 9 10 5 12 2 1.54 2.57
Chelsea 12-13 10 9 5 12 2 1.63 2.57
Everton 12-13 9 15 5 7 2 1.45 2.33
Manchester City 12-13 12 9 3 11 3 1.88 2.36
Manchester United 12-13 16 5 5 12 0 2.04 3.00
Tottenham Hotspur 12-13 14 9 6 7 2 1.76 2.33
Total 369 347 171 550 83 1.64 2.61

Even these clubs don't  usually do better than 3-2-1 in close matches, and they average more like 2-2-1. Spurs' 8-4-2 record so far i close matches would be among the best on this table, which is populated mostly by title contenders. I'd guess here that anything over 1.8 or so points per match in games decided by under two goals is probably unsustainable. Even Mourinho's 2004-2005 Chelsea only took 2.1 points per match in this subset of the season.

How about the flipside? How have the worst clubs performed in close matches?

Club Cl W Cl D Cl L NC W NC L Pts/M Cl Pts/M NC
Norwich City 04-05 6 12 8 1 11 1.15 0.25
Southampton 04-05 4 14 12 2 6 0.87 0.75
Birmingham City 05-06 6 10 9 2 11 1.12 0.46
Fulham 05-06 12 6 12 2 6 1.40 0.75
Portsmouth 05-06 7 8 8 3 12 1.26 0.60
Sunderland 05-06 2 6 15 1 14 0.52 0.20
Charlton Athletic 06-07 5 10 8 3 12 1.09 0.60
Fulham 06-07 8 15 5 0 10 1.39 0.00
Sheffield United 06-07 8 8 9 2 11 1.28 0.46
Watford 06-07 2 13 10 3 10 0.76 0.69
Derby County 07-08 1 8 13 0 16 0.50 0.00
Fulham 07-08 5 12 8 3 10 1.08 0.69
Reading 07-08 7 6 8 3 14 1.29 0.53
Hull City 08-09 7 11 10 1 9 1.14 0.30
Middlesbrough 08-09 4 11 9 3 11 0.96 0.64
Stoke City 08-09 9 9 8 3 9 1.38 0.75
West Bromwich Albion 08-09 4 8 9 4 13 0.95 0.71
Birmingham City 09-10 13 11 9 0 5 1.52 0.00
Bolton Wanderers 09-10 8 9 8 2 11 1.32 0.46
Burnley 09-10 4 6 9 4 15 0.95 0.63
Hull City 09-10 5 12 6 1 14 1.17 0.20
Aston Villa 10-11 10 12 8 2 6 1.40 0.75
Birmingham City 10-11 6 15 6 2 9 1.22 0.55
Wigan Athletic 10-11 7 15 5 2 9 1.33 0.55
Bolton 11-12 6 6 5 4 17 1.41 0.57
Stoke City 11-12 8 12 6 3 9 1.38 0.75
Wigan Athletic 11-12 8 10 5 3 12 1.48 0.60
Newcastle United 12-13 9 8 11 2 8 1.25 0.60
Norwich City 12-13 9 14 8 1 6 1.32 0.43
Queens Park Rangers 12-13 3 13 12 1 9 0.79 0.30
Reading 12-13 5 10 11 1 11 0.96 0.25
Total 198 320 270 64 326 1.16 0.49

You see an average of 1.16 points per match in close games, and besides record-breakers Derby County and Sunderland, just about everyone is within spitting distance of a point per match. Swansea City, a good side averaging 0.70 points per match in close contests, should pick up quite a few more points if they can maintain this same level of play through the rest of the season.

Conclusions: Walking It Back a Little

I feel like I've been mirror-reading the data here a little too much. We can never be sure that this particular club in this particular time aren't an outlier. We can never know what Spurs, City or Swansea is going to do in the second half of the season. This is what makes the study of human events so much fun, for me. We're always working with incomplete information, incomplete understanding, and feeling our way toward the best ideas we can make out.

What I love about statistics isn't that they give us straight truth. Rather, the principle of the discipline is that numbers are never more than an imperfect estimate of what's really happening, and we try to then estimate just how imperfect.

At the same time, though, if a club has a record in close matches that would make them a total outlier over the last ten years in the Premier League, and if their underlying stats in shots and shots on target likewise rate this team as more of an upper mid-table side than a title contender, I'm going to go with the numbers most of the time. That's my reason for relative pessimism about Tottenham Hotspur's season. Mutatis mutandis, it's why I think Swansea City should be a dangerous side in the second half.

I don't think every club with an unexepectedly good or bad record in close matches is lucky. But usually, they will not maintain that performance.

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