Friday, November 4, 2011

Weekend Preview: What to Make of Newcastle?

Newcastle is 3rd in the table and one of two unbeaten teams in the league. This wouldn't have been a big surprise not that long ago, but given the disastrous tenure of owner Mike Ashley, this is a huge shock. Ten weeks in, the punditry are finally forced to accept they need to take a look at Newcastle. Some see a fluke, some a genuine contender. But which is it?

Unfortunately for Newcastle fans, it's a fluke. First off, I feel I need to make the somewhat obvious point that being unbeaten is meaningless. In this league, a win and a loss is better than two draws. Saying you're unbeaten sounds great, but it really doesn't make you a great team. Moreover, if we analyze the four drawn matches that Newcastle has had so far, only in one of them has Newcastle produced more shots on goal than the opponent, meaning they were the more likely loser in the other three. If they had lost one or two of these, I doubt Newcastle's start would be that big of a deal.

The more common argument for the unbelievers has been that Newcastle haven't played anybody good yet. Newcastle have played the easiest schedule out of any team in the league. Their opponents have average 1.04 points per game. Averaging 1.04 points per game for the whole season would put a team below the 40 required to avoid relegation. Moreover, Newcastle's toughest two games (Arsenal and Spurs) were both at home. Suffice to say Newcastle have been a little lucky on the scheduling front so far.

That wouldn't be as much of a concern if Newcastle were dominating their opposition, you can only beat the teams in front of you after all, but they're not. Though they are tied with Chelsea for third in goal differential, they are only sixth in SOG differential, and that is with an absurdly easy schedule. In fact, their average goal differential is higher than their average SOG differential, something that is usually untenable.

Just to be clear, Newcastle are not a bad team. I think they'll end up fighting for 7th with Everton and Sunderland. However, they are not better than any of the top six and their easy early schedule hasn't given us the best indication of their true talent level. We'll see what happens after their next four games of Everton, City, United, and Chelsea.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Away Teams Pay the Penalty

Chris Anderson has another excellent post at Soccer By The Numbers about the differences between home and road teams. He notes that not only do home teams accumulate more shots on goal, but also that they have a higher Finish Rate (i.e. they convert a higher percentage of their shots on goal) and wonders why that would be the case. Fortunately, I think I have an answer for him.

First of all, let’s ask the important question: why should being the away team make any difference in the outcome of a game? The field, the ball, the rules, the play; they’re all the same. What is it about playing away from home that makes any difference at all? There’s the comfort factor obviously. You are certainly more apt to be ready for the game if you wake up in your own bed and can follow your usual routine. Traveling can also fatigue the body, especially if it is a long trip. There may be certain details about the field of which you are unaware or can’t take advantage (ever notice how all of those ballboys at Stoke have towels to wipe off the ball for throw-ins just to help Rory Delap?). But the main difference is you don’t have the support of the fans.

What kind of impact can the fans have on a team’s ability to convert their chances? If you answered “negligible”, I think you’d probably be correct. However, fans do have a significant impact on the referee and how he makes decisions. In every sport, referees tend to give more calls to the home team and soccer is no exception. Fair enough, but what does this have to do with improving the home team’s Finish Rate? Simple. The refs not only award more free kicks for the home side, they also award more penalties.

As we know, penalties have the highest Finish Rate of any type of shot on goal; 80% of penalties that result in shots on goal go in the net. If a ref awards only a few more penalties to home teams relative to away teams, home teams will get a relatively massive boost to their Finish Rate because it is so easy to take those opportunities. It follows then that a team playing at home would post a higher Finish Rate than they would on the road. So far this year, the evidence has backed this hypothesis. Including penalties, teams have a Finish Rate of 31.14% at home, compared to 30.45% in all games. If we take out penalties, teams have a Finish Rate of 27.84% at home, below the 28.12% they average in all games. It seems that penalties are indeed what inflates the Finish Rate of home teams.

Though there may be differences in approach that make certain teams have a better Finish Rate at home or on the road, league-wide that doesn’t seem to be the case. Unfortunately, what seemed to be an intriguing difference between a team’s play on the road and at home is no more than a function of the referee.