With the 2015/16 English Premier League season drawing to a close, positions in the table are being keenly contested from top-to-bottom, from the pursuit for European football at the sharper end of the standings to the three-way relegation battle in the basement.
I wanted to find out if the teams fighting for their respective fates deserve to be in the positions they are in the table, or more specifically if any of them have over- or underperformed.
I did some further investigation using StrataBet’s Fair Outcome Model, rather than looking at the actual final score of games played. For reference, the Fair Outcome Model is a method by which each game is given a result based on what we consider to be the most valuable metrics (Great Chances, Good Chances, Attempts and all of that good stuff.)
A quick glance at the table (as at Wednesday 20th April 2016) will show that most teams are roughly where they deserve to be, though just two sides are placed exactly where they should be according to their fair outcomes. However, another two teams jump off the page. One of them seems to have significantly over-achieved and the other look to be a lot lower than where they should be.
According to StrataBet’s Fair Outcome Model, fifth-placed Manchester United are in fact seven positions and 12.6 points better off than they should be, whilst fifteenth-placed Crystal Palace are nine spots and 10.5 points worse off.
Before we proceed I must interject with a side-note relating to the stature of these two clubs and their general objectives for the season. The comparison between them could then be seen as a little obtuse for that reason alone, though it is important to state that I am looking at their on-pitch performance from a purely statistical base.
So let’s take a look at the reasoning behind such a dramatic swing for each side and see if we can find explanation anywhere. My initial thought would be that Manchester United are simply more efficient in attack than Crystal Palace. This theory does actually hold true, particularly when we look at their conversion rate from Great Chances (a moment in a game where a player would be expected to score.)
Palace convert just under 37% of all Great Chances they create, which is the third lowest number in the league. On the other hand United are far more ruthless, scoring 55% of their Great Chances, making them the second most efficient side in the league behind Stoke when it comes to scoring from situations where they would be expected to:
What makes these statistics even more interesting is that Palace have actually created more Great Chances over the course of the season than United (55 to 49). Again, perhaps not anything we did not know already but this really does serve to highlight that the output of Alan Pardew’s forward line has been a real cause for concern.
Naturally if Crystal Palace are not scoring when they should be, extra pressure is applied to their defensive line to keep a clean sheet. Fortunately, they have been fairly injury free at the back for much of the season and have been able to keep a settled back four in place. Conversely, Louis Van Gaal’s has suffered a lot more with injuries and has rarely been able to name his strongest back four, certainly not for any consistent length of time.
Despite this, Palace are once again near the bottom of the pile when it comes to their opponents converting against them, with 52.3% of all Great Chances situations they face leading to the ball finding the net. This figure is second only to Bournemouth, who concede from Great Chances marginally more.
Alternatively, Manchester United are the most effective side in the division at preventing Great Chances from being scored, with just 20.8% of all Great Chances they face leading to a goal. This statistic puts them just under 6% better off than nearest competitors Tottenham, who only allow 27%.
Unsurprisingly a lot of the credit for this low conversion rate must go to David De Gea in goal, who has the highest save percentage from Great Chances of all goalkeepers in the league:
Interestingly enough, Palace again come out on top when it comes to number of Great Chances conceded, having allowed just 44 all season compared to United’s 53.
These factors combined can give a fairly good indication of why these two teams are operating at different ends of the table. It seems that Crystal Palace are not being rewarded for making a lot of forays into the final third and are being punished defensively, whereas Manchester United are the opposite. Van Gaal’s men usually score when they should and do a good job of nullifying opponents.
From a purely statistical perspective, were Crystal Palace taking points when they deserved to they would be the side challenging for European football, while United would be staring at a season of mid-table mediocrity.
Style of play is also a big dividing factor between the two sides, as Man Utd are a more ball dominant side, averaging just shy of 55% possession per game. This generally means that they are more organised and more static as a unit, allowing them to control the tempo of their matches with a more methodical approach. Van Gaal’s style has been heavily criticised by supporters and pundits alike, though it is hard to argue with its effectiveness. The Dutchman’s rigid philosophy has allowed his team to grind out results and pick up points even when they aren’t necessarily deserving of doing so.
Crystal Palace average under 48% of the ball, preferring a more counter-attacking and open style, which can often see their games become stretched and played at a high tempo. Naturally this allows more chance of players being caught out of position defensively, which inevitably will lead to goals conceded over time. On occasion their more expansive and exciting style has won plaudits for delivering entertaining matches, but ultimately it has not led to enough points being put on the board. It is also fair to say that they do not really open up until they are behind and chasing the game.
In a direct comparison between the two sides it is evident that Man Utd’s style is better suited to picking up results, as can be shown in the table below with their average game statistics:
As evidenced, Manchester United do a better job with and without the ball than Crystal Palace, making their respective league standings a little less surprising when looked at through this lens.
What we can learn from the data is that Crystal Palace’s inability to do the basics effectively has cost them points and positions in the table, whereas United’s more incisive edge is paying dividends. Despite not playing particularly well overall, Van Gaal’s side continue to be in with a real chance of a top four finish and now even more so after they dispatched of Pardew’s men relatively easily at Old Trafford on Wednesday night. However, as evidenced by their team selection, Palace undoubtedly had the impending FA Cup Semi-Final with Watford on their minds.
Alec Payne (@Payney3)