How Do We Restart? Weighting Our Way Through the Maze

How Do We Restart? Weighting Our Way Through the Maze
May 13, 2020 Graeme Riley


By Graeme Riley.

It’s been a while. I thought I’d pop back and visit an old friend in TTT, socially distanced of course. Now clearly I haven’t read all of the comments during these strange times, so I am at risk of repeating some of what others may had said already, but I thought I’d throw in my tuppence.

Many people have been taking a look at the financial side of things, with threats that clubs will lose huge amounts of money. I know that, for example, Eddie (Robinson) has recently taken a look at this side of things at a macro level, but what about at a more micro level?

Like all businesses, Liverpool has a supply chain, all of whom are impacted to a greater or lesser extent. From the club staff who work behind the scenes to the printers of the match day programmes; the catering staff and suppliers of pies and beer; the museum guides and match day security; the ground staff and the scouts. All temporarily suspended from operations – individuals keen to return and companies who may not survive. The list is long.

But what about the supporters? Would any season ticket-holder try to sue the club for non-fulfilment of fixtures? Good luck in trying to get a season ticket for next year if you do. Similarly, what about the OOTs, particularly those from overseas – will they be able to spend two weeks in quarantine before every match? Potentially we will see a switch towards more locals at games instead – and possibly lower prices as a result as demand is reduced to the point where supply is not completely taken up. Maybe not so much a problem for Liverpool, but certainly for other clubs in the Premier League. Can they afford the loss of revenue without reducing costs at the same time?

Maybe it will take a brave stand by all of the clubs together – a joint communique that players, similar to other employees, are expected to return to work when requested and when safe to do so. Failure to do so could be seen as breach of contract or, more laughably, give clubs the right to furlough players. Imagine a top international maxing out at £2,500 per month…. Don’t hold your breath though as this is a line only likely to be taken where a club wishes to divest itself of a player.

The fall-out will no doubt, even without the scenario I detail above, be a long term reduction in players’ salaries with players potentially choosing to cocoon themselves in more familiar surroundings and less willing to chase the pot of gold overseas. Mega-rich and more than comfortable in their own country without feeling the need to risk it all for a few dollars more in a strange environment.

So, should football restart? Leaving aside tribal loyalties, we must remember these are businesses and even if it leaves a bitter taste, many people are reliant on the game continuing. To do so, there must be a realistic chance not just of finishing this season but running unabated through the next campaign as well. What is the point of finishing this season only to bring the whole thing to a juddering halt in two months’ time before the next one is really underway?

International football i.e. the Champions League and Europa League are probably off the agenda for two reasons. Firstly, governments will not allow players to enter their country without the necessary quarantine period and secondly, there will simply not be enough time for all of the qualifying rounds to take place and potentially the group stages. Could this therefore trigger an earlier than anticipated move towards a European Super League, possibly with teams decamping to different countries every two months? The rich may well take this opportunity to jump ship – could they even be threatening this behind closed doors to the less successful and wealthy clubs who are pushing for relegation to be scrapped?

But if we do restart, how do we do it? And if we don’t, how will the FA carry out their threat to enforce relegation? There are many suggestions out there ranging from taking the current table to a points per game basis, assuming that voiding is genuinely off the table once and for all. How can the FA legislate for clubs having more home games left than away, or a tougher run of fixtures to come than a direct competitor? As supporters of Liverpool, we are in a rather fortunate position that we don’t need to worry about the destination of the title (subject to the voiding caveat above being adhered to) and are guaranteed our place at the top table of UEFA competition, should it take place. So what I am about to explain is rather superfluous as far as we are concerned.

American sports, particularly college sports, also suffer from a lack of balance within the league season – not everyone plays the same number of games and not everyone plays each other team home and away. So how do they decide on the final rankings to allow teams to progress to end of season play offs? The answer is an old friend – RPI – something we looked at a few years ago. Nothing to do with baskets of goods and inflation – this is a weighting method to calculate the “strength of schedule”, short for Rating Percentage Index. All wins are not equal – beating Man City in this scenario does not equal the same number of points as beating Norwich.

In the US, this is applied at the end of the season, retrospectively, once all fixtures are completed. This is not a situation we find ourselves in as there are still 92 outstanding matches. So, in order to get a normalised view of this, I’ve applied the same approach but instead of doing it with the final positions, I’ve calculated the strength of schedule after each game.

The basic premise is that a team only receives 25% of its performance based on its own results, 50% based on the performance of its opponents and the final 25% based on the performance of the opponent’s opponents. Furthermore, only a proportion of the result is given to a home team whereas the away team would receive a higher score.

So, if for example, our schedule is against teams who have done very well, this might be tampered by the fact that they have only played relatively weak teams and mostly at home. Each week the RPI is calculated based on the team’s history and the opponent’s history – it therefore has an element of form included as well as venue. It’s a long established method, going back to 1981 in several sports.

To put some context to this, a title-winning side will generally achieve an RPI of 0.43 to 0.45, a struggling team will rate at about 0.3. Some anomalies do occur, last season for example Liverpool achieved an all-time record of 0.51 whereas champions Man City scored 0.49 as they won the head-to-head which cost Liverpool relatively few points compared to an equivalent loss to a weaker team. Equally, Liverpool’s total this season was lower than this season even before the Watford defeat as the standard of opposition (and their opponents) was weaker and so even though Liverpool did better than last season, their rating was lower.

So what does this give us for the current season? Well not surprisingly, Liverpool are well ahead at the top while the last Champions League place is a battle between four teams, Chelsea’s relatively easier fixtures so far relegating them to 7th whilst Burnley are doing much better under this method. The main interest however is at the bottom where Sheffield United are in turbulent waters, but the real strugglers are Norwich, Brighton and Watford, largely on account of long runs of poor results and a lack of success against the teams around them, despite picking up points against teams higher up the table. No wonder Brighton and Watford are against restarting the season – their form matches their RPI – they are in real trouble.

The full table is below:

Of course, the FA are not going to implement such a ranking method without prior consultation – and the clubs (rightly) wouldn’t just accept an arbitrary method as they would do their own calculations and raise their objections, they would have their own vested interests. However, this method does at least take account of home/away bias and strength of schedule.

Whilst the world is stumbling its way through this medical crisis, sport may seem less important than before and in reality I am sure that most of our thoughts are with those suffering from the disease and also those who are doing their best to fight against it. Nevertheless, somehow the authorities have got to steer a path through this maze, one which is fair to all concerned and at least the above should start the debate.