Was this the most unpredictable Premier League season ever? Yes, but only just. Time to give credit to Ranieri and expect more shocks next season.

The most unpredictable season ever?

My blog in January was stimulated by an earlier piece I saw in The Economist newspaper  Competitive balance in football: Why the English Premier League has been turned upside down.The piece noted that the season up to the 19th December 2015, had:

  • the highest number of games won by underdogs, 26% according to bookmakers, compared to a previous high of 23%; and
  • the lowest ELO score, an accepted measure for predicting sports’ outcomes, since 2003-4, suggesting the gap between teams has fallen significantly.

As I pointed out, the 2015/16 season was not the first season to see the table at the end of the calendar year, roughly halfway through the season, not being dominated by the big teams.  However as BBC Sport noted, 2015/16 felt different because:

  • Chelsea made the worst start of any reigning champion;
  • In early December, the gap between top place and fifth was the joint closest in the last 10 years; and
  • Chelsea and Manchester City, last season’s top 2 lost 12 games in the first 15 rounds of the season, the highest for 10 years.

Yes it was, but at the end not at the mid-point.

In my blog I used the distribution of “elite” players (those playing for the top 10 countries in FIFA’s ranking in September of the relevant season) to analyse the performance of clubs. I concluded that the increased share of “elite” players being taken by clubs outside the so-called “Big 6” was a significant factor in creating more equal playing squads and hence increasing the degree of unpredictability.

I have now analysed the final and mid-season position of clubs and compared this to where their share of elite players would predict each club would finish. The assumption is that the more elite players a club has, the higher it would finish in the Premier League. The Table below shows the results:

  • The first three rows show for each season the variation in positions from that we would expect if number of elite players predicted final league position; and
  • The last two rows show the difference in expected position of the Big 6 based on their number of elite players.
  • The higher the number, the further away the results are from what the number of elite players would predict and hence the more unpredictable the season.

Capture

We can see that 2015/16 was not the most unpredictable season at mid-year as 2010/11 had a significantly more unexpected outcome. For those with fading memories, Bolton Wanderers, Sunderland, Blackpool, Blackburn Rovers and Stoke City were all in the top 10 at the mid-point and Liverpool were in the bottom half of the table. However, by the end of the season, the “natural” order had been restored and the Big 6 occupied the top 6 slots in the table.

2015/16 was the most unpredictable season overall but only slightly -the score of 70 being marginally higher than the 69 recorded in 2014/15. It is however the case that both halves of the 2015/16 season were more unpredictable than average and it may well have been this that kept the discussion on unpredictability going with such vigor.

In truth, the rise of Leicester City, Chelsea’s demise and the failure of Manchester United to gain a Champions League slot together have created more focus on this season. In previous years, teams such as Southampton have exceeded expectations in terms of places above which were expected from the quality of their players by more than Leicester City. Others have under-achieved by more, such as West Ham United and Aston Villa. But the absolute success of Leicester City and Chelsea’s decline have shaped perceptions.

The Premier League is becoming more unpredictable…

Considered overall, 2014/15 and 2015/16 were the most unpredictable seasons since squad size restrictions were introduced, suggesting we may be seeing the start of a trend. For those looking ahead, it is worth noting, 2015/16 notwithstanding, that the Big 6 tend to under-perform most in the first half of a season after a major international championship (World Cup 2010 and 2014, Euros 2012). This potentially suggests we are in for an interesting start to the 2016/17 season and it maybe that if the Big 6 fall behind it will be harder to catch up, next season could well be even more unpredictable.

..and the changing distribution of players explains the trend.

The key difference now is that clubs outside the Top 6 have enough elite players to be able to compete for a season. A bad run of injuries may lead to a dip, such as West Ham before Christmas or Stoke City when the club lost 2 goalkeepers towards the end of the campaign, but overall the majority of clubs can keep going at a higher average level than previously for a whole season. The last two seasons have seen less of a reduction in unpredictability between the first and second half of the season than in all years except 2011/12 and this seems to reflect clubs outside of the Top 6 being able to field more competitive sides throughout the season, drawing on their greater number of elite players.

…and it seems likely to continue.

Much has been made of the new television deal which starts in 2016/17 guaranteeing, I believe, over £100 million in revenues to every club. In addition, the FFP rules on wage bill rises have been changed and so the clubs outside of the Top 6 will be able to pay more to players. With higher revenues to spend on transfers and scope to spend more on wages, we can expect even more elite players to arrive in the Premier League in 2016/17 and for the distribution to spread even more in volume terms. It seems very likely that this will increase the competitive intensity of the competition. Sit back and enjoy the fun!

But all hail Ranieri.

The Premier League business model is very successfully based around a relatively equitable distribution of revenues to ensure a strong competition, certainly when compared to other European leagues. As the Premier League’s financial success has increased, this has created opportunities for some of the supposed weaker teams to strengthen their playing squads. The indicative analysis presented above suggests this can explain some of the events of the current season.

However, Leicester City’s remarkable success goes beyond the level any economist could forecast. Yes the club has strengthened its playing squad but not to a level on paper that would be consistent with results this season. Something else must be afoot and that appears in part at least to be down to the manager. Yes the season was more unpredictable in aggregate but Leicester City winning the title is the real story which goes beyond the averages. Maybe the Economist article was right all along, it is all in the game!


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