The Past and the Pending

The Past and the Pending
March 21, 2010 Paul Tomkins

In football, we are always searching the past to predict the future.

But rather than suggest things definitely can’t happen – “so-and-so will never be good enough”, “Liverpool will never win the league under X manager”, etc – I like to look for examples that show things can change for the better. No-one is locked in their current situation; people improve all the time.

It’s important to be realistic about your chances of success. But everyone can out-perform what is supposedly their level, and everyone can have dips in form, fitness and/or confidence that temporarily inhibits them from expressing their true worth.

Interpreting the past correctly is the key.

It’s clear that clubs at the top end of the table tend to win more games than they did 20 years ago. Perhaps it’s due to the squad sizes, whereby high-quality replacements can come in, or the possibility of introducing three top-class substitutes, to help win games that, in years gone by, the elite sides would have not had the energy to grab all three points.

Whatever the reason, the average win percentage for the top six sides in the second half of the 1980s was 50%. Two decades on, that has risen to 57% – with the übersquads of recent champions contributing to a higher overall percentage.

So when we compare Rafa Benítez’s record with Alex Ferguson’s from back then, it’s important to acknowledge that more is required now – but also, more is on average achieved by rivals – than in the years when Liverpool were marching towards 18 league titles.

At 44%, Ferguson’s win ratio in his first six seasons at United meant he was winning six fewer (out of every 100) than the top six were on average recording.

By contrast, Benítez’s 56% is just a fraction below today’s ‘elite’ average. So it’s unfair on Ferguson to say that Benítez winning 12% more games equals that exact level of superiority, when on average three extra games per season are now won by the best sides in the Premier League.

However, where it gets really interesting is in comparing how the clubs were faring before each man took over.

In the six seasons before Rafa arrived, Liverpool won 51% of league games. So under the Spaniard, the Reds have won 6 more of every 100 Premier League matches (11.76%).

If that doesn’t sound a lot, then remember that this is 6% within a narrow band of success and failure; no top team wins only 40% of matches, and no top team wins as much as 80% of its matches. Real success lies between those figures.

But contrast this with Alex Ferguson’s first six seasons; he managed to take United’s win rate down from the 49% of between 1980 and 1986 to 44% between 1986 and 1992. So in other words, in his first six seasons, Ferguson took United backwards by roughly the same margin that Benítez has moved Liverpool forward.

Perhaps the difference is that, by the end of year seven, Ferguson could claim a league title, and Liverpool will have to go some to win the title in 2011, especially with the squad being sold off to repay loan debts.

But Ferguson was also helped by the self-destruction of Liverpool from 1991 onwards, and the simultaneous passing of Arsenal from a dominant league force to also-rans in next-to-no-time under George Graham. (The year United finally ended their 26-year hoodoo, the Gunners finished 10th! And Leeds, who were unable to defend their crown with any kind of consistency, dropped way down 17th; one place below where Souness’ Liverpool were sitting after a whopping 30 games.)

It’s all ifs and buts, but if the same had happened in 2009 – the two best teams of recent years (Chelsea and United) losing their way in such dramatic fashion – then Benítez could call himself a champion.

If that sounds far-fetched to some, remember that no runner-up has ever achieved as many as 86 points in a 38-game season. While the champions obviously secured more than 86 points on numerous occasions, they didn’t ‘need’ all of those points.

In other words, hitting the 86-point mark would guarantee the title … except last year. And only the best sides can get up near the 90-point mark.

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