This post could alternatively be titled ‘Why I enjoy talking to people on twitter’. Amidst a brief discussion of Mauricio Pochettino’s appointment a couple of weeks ago Richard Whittall said the following:
Which set me off thinking about whether this is a single season thing or a pattern that has pervaded historically. An easy way to test this is to look at the historical Premiership standings and compare them to historical La Liga standings.
I already have historical tables for the Premiership and, thankfully, Infostrada, through the ever helpful Simon Gleave, were able to supply me with the historical La Liga tables, saving me a lot of time finding them in a suitable format online (Infostrada can also be found through their website here).
Let’s start with the Premiership. The first plot is the number of points scored by each team, against the position they finished in the table. Each season is represented by a given symbol:
A few things stick out. Those green triangles to the right at the bottom of the table? 2002-03, when West Ham went down with 42 points, a total that, in any other season, would have guaranteed them at least 16th place (and about a 50% chance of finishing 14th).
The blue and purple circles to the left in 4th position? Liverpool in ’03-04 (who would go on to win the Champions league the following season), and Everton in ’04-05 (easily the worst team from the Premiership to finish in the top four (link)).
Finally the purple triangles to the right in 7th and 8th? Everton and Liverpool in ’09-10, when a remarkable 8 teams recorded more than 60 points, compared to an average of 5.5 over the other 11 seasons in the sample.
So how does the above plot look if we average the points by league position?
The largest gaps appear at the extremes of the tables. The top end is understandable, the teams up there spend inordinate amounts of extra cash to earn those expensive ‘points above replacement’ that I’ve touched on previously (here, here, and here). The bottom end I don’t have such a simple explanation for, are there any theories out there? Or is it something we just want to pin on luck? Instinct tells me there should be something with a slightly more solid basis than that.
Anyway the grouping is tighter in the middle of the table, and I’m actually surprised it’s not more tightly packed. There doesn’t seem to be a massive incentive to finish 9th instead of 14th, the financial incentive is about £4m (link), which requires a team to improve by an average of 8 points, whereas it likely costs more than that to make your team just 2 points better over the season (link). Maybe this is suggesting that these too are still relatively inexpensive points to gain, and the real cost comes in at a much higher point in the table, around the positions that European qualification becomes possible.
Now let’s turn our attention to La Liga. Below is the equivalent plot to the first Premiership one above, and again each season is represented by a given symbol:
A couple of things strike me here. Firstly the groupings in the middle of the table appear to be comparable, if a little tighter than those in the Premiership. Secondly Barcelona and Real Madrid have been utterly dominant over the past three seasons, averaging a combined 192 points, 33 points per season more than the top two teams averaged in the 9 preceding seasons. Interestingly, however, this has come at the cost of mid-table teams rather than those towards the bottom end of the table (see table to the left):
One possibility is that the top teams were already dominant against those at the bottom end of the table so there wasn’t much ground to gain from there. That’s certainly plausible. It’s meant that approximately two points fewer are required to attain a given mid-table position though and, because the 17th/18th placed teams are scoring as many points as the 9 seasons prior, each of these positions is now two points closer to the relegation zone. In essence, whilst Barca and Real are making the top of the table less competitive, they’re also responsible for a narrowing in the margin of error for teams in the bottom half of the table. Games between these mid-table teams are taking on more importance as a result, which I’d argue is good for both supporters and the league.
So finally lets plot the average points per position in both the Premiership and La Liga and see how they compare:
And you know what, historically Rich’s hypothesis proves to be correct. It’s clear that it requires a much smaller points improvement to move up a few positions through mid table in La Liga than in the Premiership, for example the average gap between 9th and 17th in the Premiership is 14 points, whereas in La Liga it’s a mere 10. And, to me at least, that’s interesting as hell, for instance it suggests that a difference between a team with a TSR of 0.45 and 0.50 may be more pronounced in terms of league position in La Liga than the Premiership – and that could prove to be a really useful thing to know.