Data Rant: Moyes vs Van Gaal
Manchester United’s victory against Premier League strugglers QPR increased the Reds’ total to 40 points this season. It was United’s 22nd game of a mixed campaign. Much has been made of the total after 21 games – just 37 points – the same amount David Moyes’ side had amassed at the same time last season. So who has really done better – Moyes or Louis Van Gaal?
The comparison is simplistic of course, but United’s net spend of £122 million during the summer transfer window, together with Van Gaal’s reputation, raised the hopes of many fans. The voices of discontent are just starting to surface though even if it is United’s Premier League position that ultimately counts. On that front Van Gaal has bettered Moyes by three positions.
United’s points total does raise questions about the summer’s heavy spending though. Not least because the gap between United and leaders is 12 points – just two better than at this stage last season. There is also a sound argument that United owe Liverpool and Arsenal for performing noticeably worse. Perhaps it is others’ failure rather than United’s progress that is keeping Van Gaal’s side in the top four?
Van Gaal has failed to convincingly implement his philosophy this season, while the renaissance of some players, such as Marouane Fellaini and Ashley Young, can very much be put down to factors other than the new manager.
Of course comparing one season to another always raises problems. It is important to compare relative performance of teams against the league as a whole. United’s points earned against ‘lesser’ teams and those snatched from those punching well over their weight cannot be compared in a simple numerical fashion.
Arsenal, for example, is 12 points worse off compared to 2013/14, although the Gunners strengthened across the board during the summer and boast arguably the league’s best forward in Alexis Sanchez. Southampton, by contrast, has improved despite losing players in the summer.
It can be argued that the rest of the league has improved to the point where the advantage offered by the Chilean to Arsenal is cancelled out. Perhaps United has managed the seemingly meagre 37 points, precisely, because the Reds spent so heavily during the summer?
In this analysis the average points won after 21 games is more or less the same across the past five seasons; football is a zero-sum game and wins are cancelled out by losses. Standard deviation measures the spread between teams and is, therefore, much more crucial in judging the league’s seasonal strength.
Of the five Premier League seasons analysed here 13/14 was the most ‘loose’ campaign. City, Liverpool and Chelsea may have been within two points of each other, but the performance of the bottom half was worst. Simply put, top teams could easily feed off the minnows.
This season is paradoxically the second tightest measured and the league is noticeably closer than last season. Chelsea and City are speeding ahead of the pack, but teams such as Swansea City have markedly improved from last season. In particular, West Ham United has won 15 more points than in the previous season. Simply, the minnows have flexed their muscles and Liverpool, and others, have failed to meet the challenge.
This is not necessarily the case at United. With the strength of other teams accounted for, Van Gaal is doing better than Moyes accordingly to this analysis – taking United to the 86th percentile in Premier League performance compared with Moyes on the 76th.
Each season follows a unique bell curve. The 2013/14 season may be thought of as a curve centered at 29.2 and the Reds sit 76 percent along the curve. Using this fact, Van Gaal’s United is placed on the 2013/14 curve and Moyes’ on the current curve for this simulation. Just like inflation eats away at money’s real value, points are affected by relative league strength. While this observation is firmly in the realm of fantasy, since the playing squad has undergone much change, evidence points to Van Gaal having done a marginally better job than Moyes.
It is also worth recalling that January 2014 marked the start of a period in which United unraveled – the Reds headed out of Europe and Moyes out of Old Trafford. There is no reason to suspect such a drastic turn of events under Van Gaal. After all, while United brought in Angel di Maria and Ramadel Falcao, thousands of games worth of experience in Rio Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidic, Patrice Evra and Ryan Giggs has not been carried over to the current regime – and the new manager been forced to weather a severe injury crisis.
With all that said, the Reds’ performance has not yet demonstrably justified the vast summer outlay. The mathematics suggest Van Gaal is doing better than Moyes, but the improvement is small. Besides, the Dutchman’s goal should never be to merely better the Real Sociedad manager.