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Top-of-the-table clashes catch the eye but run-of-the-mill contests decide title

The Soccer Boffin's weekly dose of betting wisdom

Pep Guardiola's Manchester City are looking to complete a Premier League double over Chelsea at the Etihad on Saturday
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Manchester City have the most Premier League points this season from games between teams currently in the top four. They will still have the most even if they lose on Saturday at home to Chelsea.

City have seven points from three of these games. They won away to Chelsea, drew away to Liverpool and won at home to West Ham.

For many fans and bettors, big games are the ones that decide the title. Are they really? How much impact do they have generally?

Games between top teams seem important – if you win your opponents lose, the proverbial six-pointer. And they do matter – but not as much as run-of-the-mill contests against middle and lower-table opponents. Every game matters. One type, though, is more prophetic than the other. And it is not the one that many people would have guessed.

I studied the last ten Premier League seasons, 2011-12 to 2020-21. I noted the results of teams who finished in the top four – against each other and against everyone else. Then I compiled mini-tables – for games between the top four and for the games they played against everyone else.

There were a lot of differences. Only one team out of every seven were in the same position in both.

For each set of mini-tables there was a correlation with the set of full tables, but it was stronger for games the top four played against everyone else than for the games they played against each other.

A few figures will illustrate this point.

Take teams who won the mini-league for Top Four v Non-Top Four. Their average finishing position in the Premier League was 1.2. Now take teams who won the mini-league for Top Four v Top Four. Their average finishing position in the Premier League was 1.9. Results between the top four were less portentous than results of the top four against everyone else.

Eight of the ten teams who won the mini-competition for games the top four played against the rest also won the Premier League. Only five of the teams who won the mini-competition for games the top four played against each other won the Premier League. Again we see that games between the top four were less telling than games they played against everybody else.

There is at least one good reason for this. There were fewer of them.

Games between leading teams are rare, which is why we look forward to them so much. If you finish in the top four you will play only six games against others who do. You will play 32 games against opponents who finish lower – more than five times as many. These games carry so much weight because there are so many of them. Doing well week-in, week-out in bread and butter fixtures is even more important than doing well once every few months in a glamour game.

Today Manchester City and Chelsea are first and second in the Premier League. If City win on Saturday the gap between them will be 13 points, if Chelsea win it will be seven points. Either way, we will not know for sure where they or anyone else is going to finish. Whatever happens, City, Chelsea and Liverpool probably will finish in the top four, West Ham probably will not. Probably, but not certainly. City v Chelsea seems more consequential than, say, City v Brighton. But there are a lot more games like City v Brighton than there are games like City v Chelsea.

Why ground advantage is a strong influence on top of the table clashes

There is a factor that has mattered more in big games than in others. It is where they are played.

I get the impression that many fans and bettors think the venue becomes less important when top teams face each other. Actually it has been more important.

I studied the ten Premier League seasons from 2009-10 to 2018-19. I stopped before the two completed since then because in those either some or nearly all games were played in empty stadiums. Without fans ground advantage is smaller.

In the ten seasons up to and including 2018-19, home teams won 46 per cent of all games. When the eventual top four played each other, home teams won 53 per cent of games. More.

We could look in a different way and see the same thing. Home teams averaged 1.63 points per game. When the eventual top four played each other home teams averaged 1.82 points per game. More again.

There is at least one good reason why home advantage should be worth extra in top-of-the-table games. Generally speaking, there is a lower than average difference in ability between the teams. The smaller the difference in ability between two teams the greater the impact of ground advantage.

An extreme example will illustrate why. Imagine a game at a neutral venue that one team have a 99 per cent chance of winning. Now imagine that the venue is changed and the much stronger team are playing at home. Ground advantage for them cannot increase their chance of winning by much – only by less than one percentage point. The greater the difference in ability between two teams the smaller the possible impact of ground advantage.

Consider a specific comparison from international football. When England play San Marino the venue is less important than when England play Spain. England are a lot better than San Marino but they are much closer in ability to Spain.

The average difference in position between teams in Premier League games is seven places. The average difference when the top four play each other is 1.7. In top of the table games teams are more closely matched than in most others, and for that reason ground advantage should matter more than in most others.


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