Even a team as good as Liverpool will have a bad run of results now and again
Football stats and philosophy from Kevin Pullein
The first book I read on football betting was Planning A Pools Win by Perman. It is still one of the best, even though it is not about the odds betting familiar to us today.
The pools, I should explain for young readers, were hugely popular before the National Lottery started in the 1990s. Dividends could run into millions of pounds. To get anything you had to find draws. Ideally score draws.
One of Perman’s great insights was that draws were not distributed evenly throughout a coupon. “On most weeks,” he wrote, “draws are scattered in a slightly irregular fashion, with little clusters here and there and gaps between them that are sometimes quite large.”
What was true for draws among all teams in a single set of fixtures can also be true for the draws and losses of one team across a season. For good teams bad results tend to come in bunches.
It should not surprise us. It is the norm rather than an exception. Yet you would never guess this from hearing people talk about football.
No team in the top division of English football have gone through a season winning every game. They all drop points. When a team near the top of the table do not win, however, they can be criticised mercilessly. Heaven help them should one game without a win become two or even more.
But not only should we expect them to have winless games, we should also expect some of those to be clumped together.
Liverpool this season have won 23 Premier League games out of 31. Five of the other eight came in nine games between early January and early March. Liverpool were said to have lost their nerve while title rivals Manchester City had kept theirs.
Which was amusing because in December the story had been the other way round. Then City lost three games out of four while Liverpool won all four. City were said to have panicked when put under pressure while Liverpool had remained calm.
Tottenham have failed to win only ten out of 30 Premier League games, but those include each of the last four. They are taking all kinds of stick. Nobody should be shocked, though, by a run of bad results. We should be shocked if it did not happen.
No team in the history of the top division won a higher proportion of their games than Manchester City last season. They won 32 out of 38 – 84 per cent. If the non-wins had been spread evenly through the season there would have been one every six games. Three came in six games between the end of December and the beginning of February.
The teams with the next-best win percentages were Preston with 82 per cent in 1888-89 (the first season of the Football League), Sunderland with 81 per cent in 1891-92 and Chelsea with 79 per cent in 2016-17.
Preston won 18 games out of 22, Sunderland 21 out of 26, Chelsea 30 out of 38. For each, though, some of the non-wins came in a cluster. Preston failed to win twice in four games during October and November 1888. Sunderland lost three games in a row in September 1891.
Chelsea went three games without a win in September 2016. That was quite early in the season. At that point nobody thought they would win the Premier League. Three months later everybody had changed their mind. Then Chelsea failed to win in three games out of six between the beginning of January and the middle of February. And some people changed their mind again.
All sorts of things in football can cluster. Not only bad results for good teams, or good results for bad teams. Also successes and failures in competitions. For teams and for the countries they represent.
Chelsea this season have reached the Europa League quarter-finals along with Arsenal. Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United and Tottenham are all in the Champions League quarter-finals. There could be English winners of the Champions League and Europa League, even two all-English finals.
Or the English teams could all be knocked out before then and the cry will go up: “They only flatter to deceive.”
We shall see. Successes for a country in the Champions League and its predecessor the European Cup have tended to come in clusters, though. Which is only natural.
After Liverpool reached last year’s final I wrote that they could get back this year or be followed by another English team. There were eight English finalists in eight years between 2005 and 2012. There were nine in 11 years between 1975 and 1985. And only three in the other 44 years.
There have also been strings of finalists from Spain, Italy and Germany, even Portugal and the Netherlands.
Back to the pools. Perman wrote: “The majority of punters ‘hop’ down the coupon when they enter their selections, leaving gaps between each draw forecast. Yet there are consecutive matches drawn each week and you often get two or three together on a jackpot week.” Almost everyone seems offended by clusters. Whether they are offended or not, clusters will occur.
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