The early-season paradox
On Saturday, Chelsea host Arsenal in a match that is ostensibly a chance for both teams to continue to assess their own progress under new head coaches. The narrative goes that given it’s early in the season, it would be wrong to read too much into the result, and in any case there is plenty of time for both teams to win the games they need in order to finish in the top four.
But herein lies the paradox of early-season matches. While it is right not to drawn major conclusions from one or two games, it’s important not to forget that these matches are as consequential now as they are later in the season. Our prediction model currently gives Chelsea a 42% chance of finishing in the top four, and Arsenal a 20% chance. A Chelsea win pushes these odds to 48% and 15% respectively, while an Arsenal win would effectively make it a dead heat at 32% and 29%. It may be early in the season, but one result can significantly change a club’s circumstances – before we even consider the psychological effects of needing to play catch-up or ‘defend’ a position.
Indeed, Arsenal provide a good case study on how an early-season defeat to a rival can ultimately cost you in May. Before a ball was kicked in the 2016-17 season, the Gunners were expected (by the betting markets) to finish 3 points clear of Liverpool, and were the more likely of the two to finish fourth. However, a 3-4 opening day defeat at home swung the odds Liverpool’s way, who eventually finished just a point ahead of Arsenal in May. Therefore between that game and the end of the season, Arsenal actually won 2 more points than Liverpool – highlighting again how one result doesn’t tell us too much about a team – but in terms of the final table that one, early-season match made a significant difference.
This tension between cautious reading into results and fundamental importance of wins means key decision makers at clubs need the right tools in order to assess their early-season results. Prediction models like the one above help; they keep in perspective the chances of us achieving our objectives for the season, and account for the ‘debt’ or ‘credit’ in our results with the uncertainty of the future. We’ll all have our own early-season big matches; knowing just how big can influence decisions down the line on whether to buy or sell, retain or sack.