When a champion looks like a loser
The conventional wisdom at the end of a season is that ‘the league table never lies’. The best team will always be champions, the worst team always bottom.
This wisdom, however, is a contradiction to the comments we routinely hear after tight matches. “I thought we were the better team” or “I thought we were a bit lucky” have become stock answers to post-match questions. One missed penalty for Derby County propelled the Rams out of the play-off places, but didn’t instantly turn them into the division’s eighth-best team. Freiburg were a slightly under- or overhit cross away from failing to score an 89th-minute winner against Bayern last weekend; a goal that didn’t suddenly mean the team were good enough to stay up.
It’s also perfectly possible for the best team in the league to have things not go their way over an entire season, and therefore fail to end up as champions. There’s certainly no universal law enforcing fortune to even itself out over 10 months; in a low-scoring sport, there’s no reason why a good team can’t lose for weeks on end. Our analysis shows that a Premier League team that has all the underlying traits of previous league winners would expect to win the title only around 60% of the time. In roughly one in every four seasons the title would go to the side who is actually the second-best team in the division.
At the bottom, it’s not impossible for the worst team in the league to stay up, simply due to things going their way. In the Premier League, we’d expect this to happen nearly 20% of the time, whilst a team as good enough to finish 13th on average has as good a chance of finishing bottom as it does fifth.
In the English Championship, a far more competitive division, the best team can expect to be champions just 50% of the time (and the worst team relegated only 70% of the time).
In the presence of such noise, it’s vital to have a temperature check on how good our team really is. The league table might suggest we’re a top-four contender, but the reality is that our underlying performance is that of a mid-table side. Equally, it’s important not to descend into panic when results don’t go our way.
Contrary to received wisdom, the league table almost always lies, which is why we created Performance League.