A question of scheduling
Stoke away. Arsenal away. Man United away. Everton away. Tottenham away. Chelsea away. Man City away. Newcastle away.
Liverpool’s opening run of away games in 2015-16 read like a death wish for Brendan Rodgers’ team – and indeed his own fortunes. Yet on the flip side, their home games in the same period promised a healthy return of points: Bournemouth, West Ham, Norwich, Aston Villa, Southampton, Crystal Palace, Swansea, West Brom.
This got 5 Added Minutes thinking: what’s preferable – a collection of ‘hard’ (i.e. vs good opposition) away games with ‘easy’ (i.e. vs weak opposition) home games, or a collection of ‘hard’ home games with ‘easy’ away games?
To find out, we created 20 fictional Premier League teams; the first team as strong as the average first-placed team in the league, the next as strong as the average second-placed team and so on. We then simulated the season thousands of times and compared the average number of points collected in two groups of 19 games: 1) vs top half (‘hard’) all at home and vs bottom half (‘easy’) all away and 2) vs top half all away and vs bottom half all at home.
As it turns out, the difference in expected points from the two groups of games is small enough so as to be dismissed as meaningless:
For the best teams in the league – given the traditional gulf in class between the top 4 and the rest – playing the top half at home and bottom half away (blue bars) is marginally preferable to the alternative option (yellow). For the rest, however, there is a very slight bias towards facing top half teams away and relying on home ‘bankers’ to collect points.
Below, for example, is the range of simulated number of points expected from the two schedules for a team as good as an average 8th-placed Premier League team:
In general, the schedule biased towards ‘hard’ home games and ‘easy’ away games displayed more variance – these types of schedules produce slightly more unpredictable results.
Of course, circumstances and motivation may make the realised points return different to the theoretical points return, but in general extreme schedules shouldn’t distort the league table after 19 games. Liverpool’s fixture list may seem aesthetically unbalanced, but like everyone else’s schedule it offers no biases beyond those in the mind.