Controlling the uncontrollable
It is an unarguable fact that we can win or lose football matches due to factors that are outside of our control. We exert significant influence on results through, for example, team selection, motivation and sound coaching but on any given day we can only leave marginal penalty calls, the opposition keeper’s performance and that of our own forwards to chance.
Over a season, how our cards fall can leave us finishing higher or lower in the table than we would expect based on the relative quality of our team. Simply put, these uncontrollable factors cause variance.
The principal reason why variance exists is that football is a low-scoring sport – a goal is more influential on the outcome of a match than, say, a three-pointer in basketball or a penalty in rugby. Teams often lose games that, based on performance, they really deserved to win. In fact, our analysis suggests that, on average, the better team (that is the team that creates notably more dangerous chances) wins only around 64% of the time.
While the factors that cause variance may be outside of our control, the extent to which we are affected by them is not. The premise is simple: variance is the result of football’s low scoring nature, so it can be reduced by making the games higher scoring.
The data bears this out – our analysis suggests that the better team wins around 75% of the time in games with over 2.5 goals vs. 50% in games with fewer than 2.5 goals.
This means that we can dictate the extent to which our results reflect our quality. So, the best team in the league should want to play in high scoring matches to limit the chances of an upset while the weakest team should do the opposite by seeking to limit scoring opportunities. Bayern Munich in the Bundesliga and Pisa in Serie B, whose matches this season involve an average of 2.9 and 1.0 goals respectively, are good examples of these two extremes.
This is interesting for clubs who span two competitions of differing opponent strengths. Domestically, Celtic adopt an open approach thus limiting the opportunity for upset, with their matches averaging around 3.1 goals since 2013. This serves them well in the Scottish Premiership where they are comfortably the strongest team, but when out-gunned on paper, as they often are in the Champions League, they struggle to compete. During the same period of domestic dominance, Celtic have either failed to qualify for the Champions League at all or failed to emerge from their group.
Celtic’s context is distinct, but we can take much from their example. Are we a club that needs to take a chance on variance, or are we better served by trying to get no more or less than we deserve? To answer this, we need to clearly understand our own context, aspirations and risk appetite but even asking the question will help us begin to take greater control.