Why the Premier League table lies

I can just imagine this title has you already bemused; after all, I have just flipped and challenged the authority of one of football’s most over used clichés.

As you might already know, I am die hard Gooner. That’s an Arsenal fan to the layman reader. As a fan of the club for some twenty years I have seen my team win titles, and lose titles, some of which we maybe should’ve won, ironically none we should’ve lost.

At the end of those agonising seasons of near misses, I always used to console myself with the idea that we were really the best team, and that we lost the title rather than the opposition winning it. Sometimes I made these views known to my Manchester United supporting friends and was duly laughed out of the room.

Basically that paragraph above sums up the subjectiveness of football, in that in many instances, performance is not the conclusive barometer as to who is better. As you will hear many a football pundit say, “the mark of a true champion is winning when you play badly”. I would personally argue that it’s the mark of a lucky team. Then that would probably be countered with another cliché like, “we make our own luck”; this all points to the subjective nature of football.

For me classification of who is the best team in football is an unfair balance between objectivity and subjectivity. The league table decides the champions and is entirely objective. No points are given out for style and/or aggression.

In football because we have this de facto way of ranking teams, we never question its conclusiveness; we just accept that we play each team once at home and each team once away. The theory is that everyone is under the same conditions, but in reality it is far from it.

Firstly, the point at which you a play team during the season can be a decisive factor in how the game is played out. For example, at the start of the season, most teams are fresh and are optimistic, so their approach to games is likely to be more open; towards the end of the season positions might already be established for many teams, so a team who is already relegated might feel uninhibited and play a more open game than a team who’s in a fight to prevent relegation.

If you had played the same mid-table team in December, they might’ve put more effort in and thus the conditions in which teams face each other become vastly different. These conditions are not just for the reasons I mentioned; we also have to add in factors like current form and player availability with regard to injury and suspension. Other factors include weather and fixture congestion. In reality the league doesn’t provide equal conditions, it just provides the best way of allowing every club to play each other during a season.

I have always been intrigued by the Elo rating system used in chess to calculate the relative skill levels of players in a match. This is a complex system involving weighting and averages that could bring add a bit of intrigue if it were used within club football (Editor: We used the Elo rating system for football teams to rank teams for Euro 2008. More here and here).

Like I have said, when deciding who the best team, we look objectively at said table; however when deciding who the best footballer is, we are entirely subjective. Mainly because there is no true statistic which we believe can truly satisfy all the criteria needed.

We have the top goal scorer chart which “proves” who the best goal scorer is, interestingly not the most prolific (although that would be equally as flawed because someone who scored 1 goal in 1 game is considered more prolific than someone who score 37 goals in 38 games). We also have the assists chart which in theory proves who the most creative player is. However for an assist to count someone has to have scored. Unfortunately this means if you ably assist Ade Akinbiyi you can expect your goal assists to be a lot lower than if you were to do the same for Samuel Eto’o, which again is a flaw in the system. And we also use the clean sheets stat to evaluate goalkeepers and their back four, but this is equally as flawed.

The key here is that there are many different types of player, attackers, defenders, creators, finishers and stoppers. And we judge them within their own parameters and compare them to others through the value they garner within their specific parameters. For example we compare John Terry to Frank Lampard by saying John Terry is a better defender than Frank Lampard is a midfielder. It probably would be more apt to use the title and Americanism MVP (Most value player) rather than player of the season. As in reality we are really comparing value added (However this is a slight digression).

As previously mentioned at the end of the season, we decide who is best based upon our own individual subjective view point, if this can be done for players, then surely the same can be said of an entire football team. Let me give a scenario. We have two fictional footballers, Augustin Delwoolfio and Raymond Cheesecake. Delwoofio is an attacking genius, a bright spark who at times can dominate games, but at the same time can go missing very easily. He is the ultimate in inconsistency. However, in the last season he played out of his skin for 80% of the games, but towards the end of the season, he missed a penalty and his form dipped and for the last 20% of the season he was awful giving the ball away and really hindering his team.

Cheesecake on the other hand is a very good player who plays at a high level for 90% of the time without wowing you, then every now and again he has a stormer where he looks like the best player ever; this was how he performed in the (fictional) season just mentioned. In a subjective world Delwoofio would likely be considered the better player, and would gain all the awards. But in an objective world those awards would likely go to Cheesecake.

This is because the examples I used, for me represent how some leagues are won and lost. I would argue Delwoofio is analogy for the Arsenal team in 2007/08 and the Newcastle team in 1995/96, and Cheescake was an analogy for the Manchester United team of those seasons. The clear theme of both is that exciting inconsistent team lost the league, and the very good and very consistent Manchester United won the league in both seasons. This reinforces my point that leagues reward consistency.

To wrap up, I am not saying that football matches should be marked like in boxing or gymnastics, where you get points for aggression and artistic interpretation respectively. I am not saying we should introduce some sort of weighting system that takes into account all of the possible mitigating factors during a system.

What I am saying is that the notion that the league table doesn’t lie, is in fact a lie in itself and that we should give the League champion credit for their consistency, strength and overall quality. That doesn’t mean however that the best team doesn’t win the league, it just means that it is up to us, the fans to decide whether we believe it.

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