Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Another Picture From the Manchester Demolition Derby

Watching City take on United at Old Trafford on Sunday was a sight to behold. Unfortunately, I wasn't there to see it in person (not that I wish United ill in any way) for the historical occasion it was (and the good football, too).

We now know that the outcome of the match was truly unusual. But how unusual? One way to put a number on "unusual" is to see how long it's been since an unusual result occurred - a chronological way of describing common and uncommon events. And that's been one of the story lines we've seen - aside from Alex Ferguson's "worst day", also "not since 1955" or "not since 1926" are things we've heard and read quite bit of these last couple of days. These numbers clearly tell us that Sunday's result was one for the history books.

If we're not interested in history and just statistics, another number we can put on "unusual" is the frequency of a result, relative to other occurrences. So for the hardcore statisticians among you, below is a table that shows the frequency of difference score lines in the Manchester derby when United hosted City since 1907 (the first such occasion). To find Sunday's result, go down on the United column to "1" and over on the City rows to "6". This tells us that a 1-6 result has occurred 2.99% of the time when United has hosted City (2 out of 67, in case you're curious).

These numbers also tell us that the most common score line has been 1-1 (17.91% of the time), which occurred twice as often as 0-0, 1-0, and 3-1 (all 8.96% of the time). You get the idea. Interestingly, 1-6 is not the most unusual score line (0-2, for example, has never happened when United has hosted City).

Since I didn't make it to Old Trafford on Sunday, I didn't have a chance to take any pictures. So for the fun of it all, here's a different way of depicting Sunday's demolition derby, based on the data shown in the table above. Each differently-colored area depicts the frequency of match outcomes for different numbers of goals scored by United. So, for example, the red area shows the frequency of matches (in %, shown on the y-axis) that different score lines happened when United scored 1 goal. The area's size varies by how many goals Manchester City scored. So to find Sunday's result, we need to find the area when United scored one (so it's the red area) and when City scored 6. For that, we need to move all the way out to the right, where you see the 2.99% frequency with which a 1-6 score occurred. 

I know: beauty is in the eye of the beholder. If you're a City supporter, this may be one of the most beautiful pictures you'll see this year. If you're a United fan, you probably think your 5-year old can do better.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

City In The Spotlight, United Steady As She Goes

This was one of the more glorious weekends in the history of Manchester City Football Club. They cruised past Aston Villa to a convincing 4-1 home win, grabbing the spotlight with conviction, despite plenty of off-field distractions and pressures to justify the tab their owners have splashed out. This weekend at least and at last, City looked to be in the catbird seat.  What a contrast to local rivals United, who barely managed to eke out a draw ten minutes from time at Anfield.

In fact, the weekend’s results seemed a reflection of a more fundamental dynamic at work, with the nouveau riche at City in inevitable ascendancy and old, established (and overleveraged) United struggling hard to keep pace. Points won from the average match seem to tell the story of their fortunes in recent years. Since 2008, City have steadily increased the points they have taken from a match from 1.32 to 1.76 to 1.87.  And so far this year, that number has jumped to an astonishing 2.75 this year. In contrast, United’s points per match have gone from 2.37, to 2.24, and 2.11 over the same three seasons.

Forget the past some might say; this year is what matters. This year City have matched Arsenal’s record for most goals after 8 matches of Premier League play (27, in case you’re curious). At the same time, United have struggled to keep their opponents at bay. Their young keeper DeGea has had to make more saves than any other Premier League goalkeeper this season (32 in all). The main reason United have been able to stay in the hunt is their offensive efficiency, which has made up for their defensive deficiencies (and which they are unlikely to sustain). As the two clubs head toward their highly anticipated clash this weekend, City seem to be ahead and gaining speed.

But before you look for me to write United’s obituary, think again. For starters, keep in mind that only a fifth of the season’s matches have been played. And if there’s one thing Alex Ferguson knows, it’s that the season is long – very long.  Topping the table in October gains you column inches, but is no guarantee of being there on Boxing Day (ask Chelsea about last year). In fact, while everyone is paying attention to City at the moment, Ferguson’s men are very much conducting business as usual. And that could spell trouble for the rest of the league come May.

For United, business as usual means not slipping up – consistency is the name of their game. There’s a simple formula for this: win at home and don’t lose on the road. Simple, right? But not all teams are equally good at turning home field advantage into wins and negating the other side’s home field advantage. Not all teams are Manchester United.

While the league as a whole managed to win slightly fewer than half of their home matches last year (47%), eventual champions Manchester United won an astonishing 95% of theirs. Without a doubt, one critical component of United’s championship campaign was making Old Trafford a fortress other clubs just couldn’t take.

If winning at home was key for United’s success, what are we to make of United’s draw on Saturday at Anfield? Drawing on the road – or more correctly, not losing on the road – is also what United do better than anyone. United managed a draw more than half the time when playing far from the cheering crowds at Old Trafford and lost only 21% of their away matches. In contrast, rivals Chelsea and City lost 36% of theirs. And, though fans take great pride and pleasure in a win, as Sir Alex knows, points from draws count, too. After all, winning the league is about points, not the number of wins.

Whether United’s season will look like last year’s is anyone’s guess. So far this season, their home record is 100% and their away record is 50% wins, and 50% draws. Sound familiar?

But back to that other team from Manchester. For now, Roberto Mancini’s side certainly have the look and feel of a juggernaut – much like Chelsea did around the same time last year. With City’s home and away record very much like the Red Devils’ (4 wins at home, 3 wins and 1 draw on the road), the moment clearly belongs to the Citizens. But it’s just that: a moment. Like his cross-town counterpart, their manager is smart enough to know what all good managers know: seasons are long and typically decided at the end. When asked after the match, how he feels sitting atop the table, City’s clear-sighted gaffer replied: “We are happy. Our feeling is good. But we are missing another 20 games till the end.”