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Friday, 16 November, 2018

Which teams will surprise us when the Premier League returns?

Don't expect history to repeat itself

Burnley finished seventh in the Premier League
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At the end of a season most football writers praise teams who got good results and criticise ones who got bad results. A football betting writer should do something else: try to identify teams who might have got different results than they deserved, who might therefore get other results next season.

I think that in the Premier League Burnley were often lucky while Southampton were often unlucky.

Burnley finished seventh. They will start next season in the second qualifying round of the Europa League. I am pleased that such a nice thing has happened to a small club. Burnley will play in a European competition for the first time in more than half a century. But they do not deserve to. Southampton finished 17th, just above the relegation line. They deserved better.


Premier League standings


The future is usually at least a bit different from the past.

GK Chesterton made this point in a 1904 article in The Daily News: “He must have been a man with a very dim and strange mind who said, ‘History repeats itself’. Of course, there is a grain of veracity in it, but surely the correct way of stating the matter would be, ‘The universe repeats itself, with the possible exception of history’.

“Of all earthly studies history is the one that does not repeat itself… Astronomy repeats itself, botany repeats itself; trigonometry repeats itself; mechanics repeats itself; compound long division repeats itself.

“Every sum if worked out in the same way at any time will bring out the same answer. But it is the peculiarity and fascination of the sum of the sums of history that with the most perfect calculation the sum comes out with a slight mysterious difference every time.”

Why? Partly because people can get praise or criticism they did not deserve. To a greater or lesser extent they acquire a reputation that is inaccurate.

Leo Tolstoy set scenes of his novel War and Peace at the Battle of Schongrabern in Austria. It was fought in 1805 between French and Russian armies. Prince Pyotr Bagration led the Russian army, in fiction as in fact. Prince Andrew Bolkonski existed only in fiction.


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Bolkonski explained to Bagration how the battle had started. “Prince Bagration bent his head in sign of agreement with what Prince Andrew told him, and said, ‘Very good!’ in a tone that seemed to imply that everything that took place and was reported to him was exactly what he had foreseen.”

As the battle developed Bolkonski realised that this impression was false. “Prince Andrew listened attentively to Bagration’s colloquies with the commanding officers and the orders he gave them and, to his surprise, found that no orders were really given, but that Prince Bagration tried to make it appear that everything done by necessity, by accident, or by the will of subordinate commanders was done, if not by his direct command, at least in accordance with his intentions.”

If things went well Bagration would get the credit, and if they went badly he would get the blame. Whether they went well or badly had little to do with him.

Outcomes in sport are influenced by the abilities of the participants but also by good or bad fortune. Daniel Kahneman is a psychologist who won a Nobel prize for economics. His favourite equation is success = skill + luck. Whatever skill a football team had yesterday they should have today, but if they were lucky before there is no reason why they should be lucky again.

What parts did skill and luck play in the Premier League this season? One way of trying to answer that question is by comparing the results teams achieved with the results their performances deserved.

And what did their performances deserve? Expected goals stats tell us how many goals we should have expected a team to score and concede from the number and position of attempts for and against them. I took those on the FiveThirtyEight website.

Burnley conceded 39 goals but should have conceded 54 – another 15. Next season in all likelihood they will concede more goals and finish lower than seventh.

Southampton scored 37 goals and conceded 56. They should have scored 46 (nine more) and conceded 49 (seven fewer). Next season in all probability they will have a better goal difference and finish higher than 17th.

West Bromwich finished last – in 20th place – and were relegated from the Premier League. Some football writers said they would have stayed up if they had made Darren Moore manager earlier. I also think West Bromwich should have stayed up but for a different reason.

West Bromwich’s play had deserved better results under previous managers Alan Pardew and Tony Pulis. Under Moore in the last few games it was the other way round: West Bromwich got even better results than they deserved.

Results do not always correspond with performances. You do not always get what you deserve, let alone, as Mick Jagger might have added, what you want or need.

Former England manager Graham Taylor understood this. He said: “When you are winning you are rarely as good as people say you are, and when you are losing you are rarely as bad as people say you are”.


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Southampton finished 17th, just above the relegation line. They deserved better
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