The headline, untouched by M Salut’s hand, is noteworthy for the absence of Sunderland from the list of contenders for the last of the bottom three slots. We must all (save for visiting supporters of the other affected clubs) take comfort from John McCormick‘s scholarly ways, sincerely hope he knows what he’s doing and be assured he is not tempting fate … it is the latest of his studies of how fluctuating goal differences may affect the outcome of the pressing Premier issue that remains to be resolved following Man Utd’s confirmation of the title
It’s now a while since Christmas and the beginning of my exploration of goal differences. You’ll remember I predicted even then that QPR and Reading were going to be relegated, but they weren’t my focus. What I was looking for was some pointer as to which one of the throng of clubs hovering around the drop zone would be joining them. I reasoned that it would be the one to show a consistent decline in goal difference in the second half of the season, with others at the bottom showing a greater improvement.
This was always speculative and by Mid-March it was clear that my reasoning had been faulty. Goal difference trends are no way to tell who will go down and who will stay up. Why should anyone expect any different? A string of 9 games that consist of narrow losses interspersed with a couple of draws will generate a small decrease in goal difference but only two points. On the other hand, some thrashings interspersed with a couple of wins will generate a worsening goal difference but enough points to give a club and fans hope. Does this sound familiar? It should as we were the one whose goal difference remained relatively healthy while clubs below and above us picked up precious points. Reading, especially, looked for a while as if they might escape and QPR, seemingly rejuvenated under Harry and a bundle of transfers, also staged a revival. Scary times, don’t you think?
And yet, in mid March the goal difference trendlines I was using pointed to both Reading and QPR as still going down and one of Wigan or Villa joining them, much as I had predicted after only five games, when there hadn’t been many results to compare. I resolved to carry on and see how far a discredited method would take me.
So let’s begin, as ever, with Sunderland’s goal difference since the summer:
You can see the unspectacular but jaggedly consistent downward trend had turned into an almost fatal plunge until the transformation brought about by Paolo di Canio. Would we have become the third team to go down? It’s a moot point. No one will ever know but I think few fans are now complaining that the change was made.
Even so, as the next chart shows, our actual goal difference was not too bad in comparison with other clubs at the bottom:
A close look at the right hand side of the chart reveals the four clubs who currently occupy the bottom places – QPR and Reading plus Wigan and Villa – are somewhat adrift of the pack. Then come NUFC and ourselves plus Southampton and Fulham.
Fulham are safe by any reckoning, not because they have played well since Christmas but because they had enough points on the board for even a mediocre second half to generate enough additional points for safety. Southampton, on the other hand, did turn their season around. Stoke and Norwich aren’t shown; their declines started after Fulham’s and after I’d selected the teams for my focus.
However, it wasn’t goal difference since the summer that interested me, it was how goal difference changed after Christmas. So here, once again, are goal differences since then, with all of the clubs reset to zero:
This has QPR, Reading and Wigan still at the bottom, with NUFC replacing Villa, but it’s a bittoo jumbled to pick out patterns of decline. I’ve been using trendlines to simplify the charts so here are the latest trendlines for these clubs, with those for January- March given first for comparison:
In March there were three very clear groups of trendlines. NUFC and Fulham’s were almost horizontal and I reckoned those two were safe. Reading and Wigan both had fairly steep slopes and Southampton, QPR, Villa and ourselves were somewhere in between. I decided from the slopes and the R2 values (a measure of how well the trendlines fit the graph points, which is no measure of reliability) that QPR and Reading would not be able to catch up, that Wigan would accompany them although it would be a close contest with Villa, and that Southampton and SAFC would be the next two clubs at the bottom.
The current league table tells me I was wrong about Southampton and not quite right about Newcastle. It’s hard to say whether or not I would have been right about us had things not changed. The current trendlines, shown below, tell a similar story. There are still three groups but they are not quite the the three groups we had in March. Fulham are still almost horizontal, and Southampton have gone from pointing downwards to upwards but NUFC have joined the middle group with a downward gradient. Their position has become more precarious in the last few weeks. Villa, too, are in this group but their trendline is not going downwards so steeply. For me, the trendlines still point to QPR and Reading, and also Wigan (unless they beat Villa) going down, with NUFC and ourselves still not able to say we are safe:
Of course, I could have reached this conclusion by looking at the league table on Sunday, in which case I’d also be able to comment on Stoke and Norwich, but I don’t think I’ve done too badly over the last few weeks. My system might be rubbish, but it has been fairly consistent in mirroring changes in the league table and, with four games to go (five in the case of Wigan) it’s as good as anything I’ve seen on Match of the Day.
Which comparison leads me to a final conclusion. The predictions made by experts on Match of the Day are no better than those made by someone who looks at irrelevant data and applies faulty logic and mathematically incorrect methods to them. But I do acknowledge the MOTD team’s expertise in other aspects of the beautiful game – I remember one of them trying his hand at management and he did a brilliant job.
* Monsieur Salut’s whimsical look at ESPN at how two players from overseas, of different generations and with styles of their own, have been crucial elements in Sunderland’s battles against the drop: Sessegnon is the new Reyna as PDC steers a Sunderland course for survival
[Sess’s goals vs NUFC and Everton] may turn out to worth many millions in Mr Short’s business calculations, and gold to some of the most passionate and least rewarded fans in the Premier League …
If Sessegnon has more natural ability, Reyna is rightly remembered for his tidier, technically sound approach to football. The former Nottingham Forest and Manchester United striker, Garry Birtles, now a television pundit, said during Saturday’s game that Sessegnon, for all his skill, often made the wrong final decision; that could rarely be said of Reyna.