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The second season illusion

In June 2010, Birmingham City manager Alex McLeish vowed that his club – which had just finished an impressive 9th place in the Premier League following promotion – would not be victims of ‘second season syndrome’.

“We will do some homework regarding teams that struggled a bit in their second years to see if we can pinpoint one or two things to help us from their experiences,” said the Scot. “We will leave no stone unturned and also get the right psychological messages to the players.”

Unfortunately for Birmingham – and countless other teams over the years – the odds were stacked against them, but not because of the reasons we are often led to believe. The narrative that goes with second season syndrome is that it’s the result of teams being ‘worked out’ by opponents, or players losing motivation. The reality is that this so-called affliction is chiefly explained by a statistical phenomenon known as regression to the mean.

Despite finishing 9th, only one team conceded more shots inside the area than Birmingham City in the 2009-10 season. They were by no means world-beaters in front of goal, either. Their success, therefore, was built upon alarming opponent wastefulness: just 7.1% of opponent shots were scored, compared to a league average of 9.7%. For all of on-loan Joe Hart’s heroics in goal, these were not the numbers of a mid-table team, and ultimately not sustainable.

The following season, Birmingham did indeed suffer second season syndrome, finishing 18th with 11 fewer points and 11 more goals against. They conceded virtually the same number of shots inside the area as the previous season, but their opponents merely started scoring their chances at the ‘normal’ rate.

That is not to say that psychological factors do not play a part in this phenomenon; it is that they are far less important and predictable than traditional wisdom accepts. Teams and players that have avoided second season syndrome were typically those that had strong underlying numbers and were not riding a bubble of success.

So if your striker is in a slump, or your team just can’t seem to build on the surprise results of last year, remember that second season syndrome can be predicted, and you can identify the true causes before the problem strikes.

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