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Wednesday, 12 December, 2018

Teams may want a winter break but it won't improve performances

Wise words from the soccer boffin

Manchester City boss Pep Guardiola is mystified by the hectic Christmas schedule
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Pep Guardiola may eventually find some consolation. He complained rightly that the English fixture schedule is a disaster. Manchester City have played 11 times since December 2. So have some other top English clubs.

City have lost Gabriel Jesus to injury. Players can be injured in any match, or in training, or even in a taxi on the way to an airport, but they are more likely to be injured when they have to play too often.

Guardiola said: “If you tell me that technically, physically it’s good for the players – no, it’s a disaster.”

West Bromwich asked for their Premier League match at West Ham last Tuesday to be postponed because they felt playing twice in three days endangered players’ safety. The request was turned down. Manager Alan Pardew said he would make changes. “There are some players who won’t be able to cope… I’d be putting them at risk.”

Stoke manager Mark Hughes rested key players at Chelsea on December 30 to give his team a better chance of winning two days later at home to Newcastle. It was an understandable decision even though Stoke lost both games. Stoke would probably have lost at Chelsea even with all their best players.

Manchester City go again on Tuesday in a League Cup semi-final first leg against Bristol City. There is, though, one thought that might comfort Guardiola. And managers of other English clubs still in the Champions League.

While English clubs are playing almost every waking moment, footballers in many other countries have a holiday. For some it is short, for others longer. Many people say that not having a winter break handicaps English teams in the Champions League. It is a statement that sounds as though it should be true. But it is not.

We can measure the impact of a winter break on Champions League performances by comparing results before and after the turn of a year for competitors from the leading European national leagues – those in England, Spain, Germany, Italy and France.

I looked at the last 14 seasons, in which there was always the same Champions League format. I took teams who competed before and after the turn of a year – in the group phase and the knockout phase. For teams from each country I calculated average goal difference per game for both periods. Average goal difference per game is goals scored minus goals conceded divided by games played.

After the turn of a year the average goal difference per game of English teams declined by 0.9. But the average goal difference per game of German teams also declined by 0.9. As it did for Spanish teams. For Italian teams it deteriorated by 0.8 and for French teams by 1.1.

Overall teams face tougher opponents in knockout rounds than at the group stage. We should expect results to decline. And they did – but by about the same amount for teams from all leading national leagues, those with a winter break and the one without. Having a holiday did not help.

There are good reasons for introducing a winter break in England. Over Christmas and New Year players can run themselves to a standstill. The quality of football wilts. And then comes the FA Cup. The third round was played this weekend.

Traditionalists complain about the declining importance of the FA Cup. One of the most important reasons for its decline is that the third round comes straight after an over-stuffed dish of Christmas and New Year league fixtures. Managers feel they have no alternative but to rest exhausted players.

Eventually, however, players do recover. And by February English teams are as ready as Spanish, German, Italian, French and others for the Champions League.


More by Kevin Pullein

Good form tends to be a more reliable indicator than bad

Goals change games but our odd punting rituals stay the same

Pulis sacking shows owners' failure to grasp probability

Growing trends of teams doing better when ahead

Teams happy to be more adventurous on home soil

Winning becomes more important with a big clash on the horizon


Phileas Fogg won his bet but it was still a dreadful wager

Phileas Fogg made two mistakes. They were big ones. He bet at the wrong odds with the wrong stake. He could have been ruined.

Fogg is the main character in Jules Verne’s novel Around the World in Eighty Days. It is the story of a bet. Fogg bet £20,000 that he could circumnavigate the globe in 80 days. That was a lot of money in 1872. It was half of everything that Fogg had. The other half he would spend on the journey.

Fogg bet with five fellow members of the Reform Club. They all agreed it was possible in theory to cross the earth in 80 days. Fogg said what was possible in theory was possible in practice. His adversaries said that in practice there would be delays.

They all missed the point. There is a difference between being able to do something once and being able to do it every time. The question should have been: what was the chance of Fogg completing his journey in the shortest time?

Put that another way. If Fogg circled the world many times how often would he get back in 80 days? He bet £20,000 at evens so in other circumstances he would have got good odds if the answer was more than 50 per cent.

Here, though, there was something else to consider. Fogg thought his journey would cost £20,000, and he was right. So if he lost his bet he would be down £40,000 – his stake plus his expenses. And if he won the cheque he cashed would cover his expenses and he would break even. The alternatives were ruin or breaking even.

The risk of losing everything made for a good story, but it made for a bad bet. And it would have done even if Fogg had stood to gain if he won.

Rewrite Verne’s story. Imagine that Fogg’s opponents paid his expenses. Then he might have had good odds and they certainly would have had a bad bet. But Fogg would also have had a bad bet. Because no one should risk everything. A bet that is more likely to win than the odds suggest can still be beaten. Because any bet can be beaten. Whatever happens today you want to be still in the game tomorrow.

Fogg woke back in London on December 21, 1872, thinking it was a day later and he had lost everything. Just in time he realised that by travelling east round the world he had gained 24 hours. He had won his bet and broken even after all. On his journey Fogg displayed characteristics that can be helpful to a bettor – he influenced what he could and accepted the rest – but the bet he made was dreadful.


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Players can be injured in any match, or in training ... but they are more likely to be injured when they have to play too often
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