Going Behind: Was there a warning sign for Manchester United?
One of the defining features of Sir Alex Ferguson’s final title-winning season at Manchester United was his team’s ability to win matches from losing positions. They found themselves behind on 16 occasions in 2012-13, and took 29 points from these games.
Whilst Ferguson was undoubtedly a master of late and come-from-behind victories, you have the question the sustainability of winning games in this nature so often.
Looking at Premier League teams from the start of the 2006-07 season, unsurprisingly we see that most teams will find themselves behind in games as often as they were the previous season.
It’s possible that if teams weren’t lost to relegation, this relationship would be even stronger.
So if teams are going behind at the same rate from season-to-season, are they earning points from these positions at the same rate each year? The chart below suggests not:
Regardless of how many points you earned from losing positions last season, the best estimate for your return this season is around 10 points – the average for the league.
Combining these two metrics and splitting the teams into elite (Arsenal, Chelsea, Everton, Liverpool, Manchester United, Manchester City, Tottenham Hotspur) and non-elite (everyone else), it’s clear that the elite teams have more ‘resolve’ – perhaps simply a result of being more talented teams – but the extent of this resolve does not fluctuate within the groups. In other words, in the long run teams will typically win points from losing positions at a roughly-average rate for their group.
If Sir Alex Ferguson did have a unique skill of earning wins from losing positions, it was always going to be a challenge for any new manager to continue this trend. Comparing this season and last, United fell behind in 42% of games in 2012-13 and have fallen behind in 48% of games in 2013-14. The differences between the two seasons are relatively small for the majority of teams.
Curiously, the three teams that fell behind the least last season – Chelsea, Manchester City and Arsenal – have fallen behind the least this season and also occupy the top three positions in the league.
All this does lead us to question the nature of ‘resolve’. If teams can’t consistently reproduce comebacks season-on-season, how much do we attribute these results to unexplained variation?
Aside from that argument, however, an important point to take away is that sometimes it’s very easy to spot a weakness; it is often something identified as a strength.