Data Rant: United’s fading Champions League hopes

February 19, 2016 Tags: Data 11 comments
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Louis van Gaal conceded defeat after Manchester United’s loss in Sunderland – it will be, he admitted, “very difficult to qualify for the Champions League through the top four now.” The Europa League remains, but it is never a good idea to count on winning a tournament – as the Reds’ defeat to Midtjylland in Denmark proves. In this article, Data Rant analyzes the past five Premier League seasons to find out just how difficult it will be for Manchester United to reach the top four.

Twenty-six games have been played this season. Over the past five Premier League seasons, form – measured by average points won per game – in first 26 games were compared to form in remaining 12 games.

In Figure 1 a relationship between form over the first 26 games and the last 12 games is present, although not strong. That is, teams that have done well in the first two thirds of the campaign tend to carry their form through to the end. Dramatic shifts cannot be ruled out though – for example, in 2010/11 Chelsea overcame an eight point gap to end the season in second place from being fifth after 26 games.

Indeed, the correlation becomes almost non-existent if only top five sides are considered, as in Figure 2, below. It is often quite clear by the 26th game which side is going to win the title. Then, there really is little incentive for second and third teams to continue and improve upon their excellent form. For teams sitting in fourth or fifth, however, there is every reason to significantly up their game for a fight for the last Champions League spot.

There are precedents of a side slipping from fourth – one example is Chelsea in 2011/12. Still, the six points that separates the Reds from Manchester City seem almost insurmountable in the context of this season.

We now compute, using historical averages and an assumption of normal distribution, just how difficult a task United faces. For top five sides the average improvement in form from first 26 game to last 12 games is 0.5 per cent. The overall average is 6 per cent. So we can safely assume that Leicester City, Tottenham, Arsenal and City will continue in a similar vein of form, per Table 1.

Current Form Expected Form Expected Points
Leicester 2.04 2.05 78
Tottenham 1.96 1.97 75
Arsenal 1.96 1.97 75
City 1.81 1.82 69

Considering United’s abysmal goal difference, the Reds must aim for 70 points. United’s current form is 1.58 points per game. To reach 70 points, United must achieve an average of 2.41 points per game in the remaining matches. In other words: a 53 per cent improvement.

We assume that improvement in form is normally distributed. Extrapolating from historical pattern, such a vast improvement can be expected to happen about once in 200 times.

Suppose, by contrast, City implodes. In 2010/11, City’s form dropped by 26 per cent, per Table 2.

Current Form Expected Form Expected Points
City (implosion) 1.81 1.33 63
Form Needed Points Needed
United 1.58 1.92 64


In this scenario United still requires a 21 per cent improvement in form. This will happen about once every six campaigns. Even should City somehow dramatically nosedive, United faces an uphill battle to make fourth.

Little wonder Wayne Rooney is focused on the Europa League as “the only way we can get into” the Champions League.” Van Gaal is also correct in pointing out that “there is a fantastic level of European football in that cup.” The élite level is, apparently, not even required to defeat United, as the Van Gaal found out on Thursday.

The unfortunate reality, however, is that United might now have to concentrate on the Europa League at the expense of the Premier League – one cannot help but notice that there is a manager out there who has the requisite ruthlessness to carry out such a job.


SEUN - February 19, 2016 Reply

*totally faded

Damien Roberts - February 19, 2016 Reply

What are the odds on MUFC finishing in the top 4 and do you think we will? I don’t and would not take that bet.

bernie - February 19, 2016 Reply

I don’t need graphs to tell me we are shit. I watch us play. football: a simple game complicated by idiots. that’s my philosophy. getting beat buy plumbers and farmers isn’t unlucky. if so hiring an arrogant Dutchman was unlucky,

NazManUnited - February 19, 2016 Reply

You must learn to love europa party cos we’ll meet again next year

Stevr - February 19, 2016 Reply

He’s just got to go. It’s unequivocal. The Board are you lost? Decision is simple – we need to change the manager and restore credibility. We are Manchester United, a club with a history much greater than yours in time, save for Sir Bobby perhaps. For the love of God let the poor man go. Your locked up, living in a vacuum. Bring back SAF & Giggsy in the short term if you need but please grab the nettle LVG is lost and it’s killing the team. Act now!

Gerald Marsh - February 19, 2016 Reply

This man is a bloody disgrace as a so called manager and so is bloody Woodward

Stephen White - February 19, 2016 Reply

good bye

Ralph C - February 19, 2016 Reply

To be fair, the data reckons without the destabilizing effect of a confirmed dead-man-walking outgoing manager. Pellegrini is confirmed finished, and that might hopefully be the fatal mistake that lets us in the backdoor once they realize their championship is gone. And Aguero gets injured or something…

That said, I’m not going to kid myself. If we can’t beat Midgetland, we have no business wasting time and resources in Europe next season.

Was going to post a long rant, but I’m just going to sum up the performance in one word: UNACCEPTABLE.

To be fair, half our team is young and new, half the squad is injured. STILL UNACCEPTABLE.

Fusilli Jerry - February 19, 2016 Reply

If Giggs is genuinely refusing to see out the rest of the season on a caretaker basis, for the good of the club, that would be consistent with his stinking out the first team for several seasons after he should have hung up his boots.

Of course United won’t finish higher than City, and may drop lower than 5th. They’ll get past whatever that Danish team is called, but were never going to win the Europa League because there are far too many decent teams left in the competition. The best chance of salvaging something from the season is the FA Cup and Giggs could come in, win it, prove something, then bugger off to work for Vincent Tan or something. Instead he seems to be contributing to the stasis with a passive-aggressive stance. Not impressive.

bobbynoble - February 20, 2016 Reply

Some days I think that the only people who really care about United are the fans.
Today is one of those days.

Mike Wilce - February 20, 2016 Reply

Woodward is the root of the problem….a total imbecile.

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