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Going Behind: Was there a warning sign for Manchester United?

28 February 2014

Manchester United's van Persie celebrates after scoring a hat-trick against Southampton during their English Premier League soccer match at Saint Mary's Stadium in SouthamptonOne 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.

comeback1

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:

comeback2

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.

comeback3

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.

comeback4

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.

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8 Comments leave one →
  1. Ole P permalink
    3 March 2014 1:17 pm

    Oh, the warning signs were there. We only won the league by ELEVEN points.

    • 3 March 2014 6:15 pm

      Did you read the post, out of interest? Because if you did, you’d have noted that United’s ability to come from behind was unsustainable based on historical Premier League outputs, and that they won 19 (29-10) more points than a team typically wins from behind. Thus, that 11 point victory may not have been as sustainable as their tendency to go behind suggested.

  2. 4 March 2014 8:58 pm

    Statistics are for those who don’t watch the matched

  3. Rahul Surya permalink
    5 March 2014 11:41 am

    Stats are like mini-skirts they don’t reveal everything. – Borrowed from an Italian.

  4. Cooly permalink
    7 March 2014 8:28 pm

    Great article, a lot of fans tend to hide behind footballing cliches. Articles like this are proving again and again that so much of football analysis is superficial and rooted in “traditional knowledge”. Thoroughly enjoyable read.

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