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Thursday, 18 October, 2018

Next fixture plays part in determining how teams approach games

Winning becomes more important with tough clash on the horizon

Bournemouth manager Eddie Howe encouraging his team against Chelsea
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Eddie Howe beamed. After Bournemouth had won 2-1 at Stoke their manager said: “It’s a special win. It was a massive game, with Chelsea to come next week. We didn’t want to become detached from the teams above us.”

On Saturday Bournemouth lost 1-0 at home to Chelsea.

When trying to assess how a team might perform we look at the games they played before. We should also look at the game or games they will play next. It can make a difference. Only a small difference, but perhaps enough to turn a team you were thinking of backing into one you really want to back or one you definitely will not.

Footballers always try hard. But if they play for a non-elite team they will try even harder than usual if this game is against another non-elite team and their next game is against elite opponents. Three points rather than one can seem even more valuable if you know that next week you are unlikely to get any.

In the Premier League there is a Big Six. In alphabetical order it comprises Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United and Tottenham.

Three times in the last seven seasons they filled the top six places in the table. Three times five of them finished in the top six. The other time four finished in the top six. So they are good as well as glamorous.

I looked at the results of Premier League games from those last seven seasons, 2010-11 to 2016-17.

When teams from outside the Big Six played each other and neither was due to play a member of the Big Six next, results were as follows: 43.7 per cent home wins, 30.0 per cent draws, 26.3 per cent away wins.

When the home team were due to play a member of the Big Six next (but the away team were not) the proportion of home wins rose to 45.2 per cent. When the away team were due to play a member of the Big Six next (but the home team were not) the proportion of away wins rose to 27.9 per cent.

For teams about to face one of the Big Six the chance of a home win increased by 1.5 per cent and the chance of an away win increased by 1.6 per cent. In each case the improved chance of a win corresponded almost exactly with a reduced chance of a draw. It seems that a sharpened desire for points enabled a small number of teams to win matches they would otherwise have drawn.

One and a half per cent, or thereabouts, is not much, but it is enough, say, to turn a team you thought should be 7-5 into a team you now think should be almost 13-10. And if a bookmaker offers 6-4 that might be enough to convert the team from one you were unsure whether to back into one you feel you should back.

I look in any market for a difference of two per cent in the chance of success implied by a bookmaker’s odds and my own. In my experience a bookmaker’s odds are rarely wrong and almost never by much.

Obviously some impending fixtures against the Big Six will be more intimidating than others. You would be less hopeful of getting anything away to Manchester City than at home to Arsenal.

And wanting something does not mean you will get it, of course. As a young man I wanted to win gold in the Olympic 5,000 metres, but no matter how hard I trained I could not run fast or for long.

Bournemouth lost 2-0 at home to Watford before games against Manchester City and Arsenal. Then they drew 0-0 at home to Leicester before visiting Tottenham.

Overall, though, non-elite teams are slightly more likely to win this game if their next game is against elite opponents than if it is not. And knowing that could leave you beaming. Or at least not scowling.


Accuracy not number of passes is the key stat

When Graham Taylor was manager of Aston Villa he was interviewed on the bench during a televised match, and he said something like this: “Don’t give the ball away cheaply, aim for every attack to end with an attempt on goal.”

I realised at the time these were wise words from a sage coach. Only years later, however, did I realise that they lead to a startling conclusion.

Every attack must end with an attempt on goal or without an attempt on goal. These alternatives are mutually exclusive. You cannot have more of one without having fewer of the other. How can an attack end without an attempt on goal? By far the most common way is a bad pass.

There are lots of passing and possession stats. The most revealing is the one we hear least often: bad passes – or as the data collectors would say more politely, uncompleted passes.

During matches Sky and BT Sport now display stats for each team on passes completed and passing accuracy. To get the second stat they need the one that would tell us even more, uncompleted passes.

Opta say that this season Manchester City have averaged 100 passes per game more than any Premier League team since they started counting, which was 14 seasons ago. What matters, though, is not how many passes City complete in an attack but whether eventually they make a bad pass or the ball gets to a player who can shoot. City do well on that comparison too.

Kevin De Bruyne and Manchester City are the Premier League's pass masters

It is possible, though, for teams to have very different stats for passes completed and passing accuracy but still have the same number of shots.

Let me explain how. Suppose Team A play Team B. Every time Team A get the ball they attempt 50 passes. In half of their possessions the 50th pass reaches a player who shoots; in the other half the 50th pass goes astray. We can say two things about Team A: they complete 99 out of every 100 passes, which means that their passing accuracy rate is 99 per cent.

Every time Team B get the ball they attempt two passes. In half of their possessions the second pass reaches a player who shoots; in the other half the second pass goes astray. We can also say two things about Team B: they complete three passes out of every four, which means that their passing accuracy rate is 75 per cent.

Team A complete many more passes and have much better passing accuracy than Team B, but both teams have the same number of shots.

The key is bad passes. The less often a team lose the ball the more often they will have a shot on goal. In fact, it is impossible for the team who lose the ball most often to have most attempts on goal.


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Three points rather than one can seem even more valuable if you know that next week you are unlikely to get any
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