When is a crisis not a crisis?

Q: When is a crisis not a crisis? 

A: When performances are actually ok, despite poor results.

When the heat is on, however, and things aren’t going your way, it’s not always easy to stay calm and take an objective view of course. And it’s sometimes hard to look past the league table.

We often hear managers defend poor results in their post-match interviews: “we played well, but it just didn’t go for us today”. This can seem like an excuse, leaving owners and fans exasperated. Ultimately they know that results – not performances – put points on the board. As anxiety kicks in, the subsequent ‘hysteria’ (as Alan Pardew called it earlier this month) can escalate quickly. And when the results still don’t come, even the most self-assured managers will start to question themselves – despite feeling that performances are actually ok. The sensation is akin to struggling in a pool match against a complete novice; you know you’re the stronger player at the table, but while none of your shots will drop into the pockets; everything is going in for your lucky opponent (including those annoying unintentional ricochets).

Let’s take a step back, and look at the Newcastle situation objectively…

After 6 games, Newcastle are 19th in the table with just 3 points, having scored only 5 goals and conceded 12. On the face of it, it’s relegation form – and unacceptable for a club of Newcastle’s size. But a deeper look using intelligence from 21st Club (we’ve built an analytical model that essentially assesses a team’s effectiveness at the critical attacking and defensive moments in matches) reveals that Newcastle’s early season performances are not as bad as the league table suggests. True, they’ve only scored 5, but our model shows that they are getting into the right positions to score and they’ve probably been a tad unfortunate. We know this because past data tells us that a typical team in the same shooting positions would have scored 9% of their attempts; Newcastle have managed just 5% (which is equivalent to 2.8 goals less than we’d expect from their chances created). And while critics will argue that they should have been more clinical, there is always a context – a near miss, a shot against the post, a miraculous save from the opposition goalkeeper – and history shows that teams do not remain this wasteful nor unlucky in the long run. The important thing for Newcastle is that they are creating chances and – on another day – a bit more luck or ruthlessness in front of goal may well have been enough to convert at least one of their three draws to date into a victory. 

At the other end of the pitch, they’ve conceded 12 goals; an average of 2 per match, which is the third worst in the league. However, their opponents have been extremely clinical, converting 18% of shots – almost double the Premier League average of 10%. Such offensive efficiency from opponents is also unlikely to continue across the season.

The upshot is that – while Newcastle sit 19th in the Premier League – they actually rank 8th in terms of performance. In fact, in the simulations that we ran, over 95% of time Newcastle would have secured equal or better overall results from the same performances so far!

Newcastle are just a topical example; every team can benefit from looking at the big picture. When faced with a perceived crisis, clubs must try to see past the hysteria and take a long-term view. Sometimes you’re not only as good as your last game, and the league table can lie. Sure, if the underlying performances on the pitch are poor, then it could be time for a change – there’s a lot at stake after all. But if your performances are ok, then the results will come…

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