Football fans often talk about form with both negative and positive connotations. Ronaldo is the in-form player for Madrid, Ozil is so out of form, Coutinho has to regain his form if Liverpool are to maintain their chances of a top-four finish…controlling form seems to be one of the most important attributes of modern day footballers. There have been researches done on the idea of a player ‘being hot’ in the NBA and the results have been somewhat inconclusive. The concept that someone might experience more success if they were successful recently is widely termed as the ‘hot-hand’ fallacy. Form is the football equivalent of the ‘hot-hand’ phenomenon of basketball; is there more conclusive evidence that form can be controlled in football?
Football statistics, and the evaluation of the game based on those numbers, is evolving. What started as a lone man recording events of game on his notebook with a torch on top of his head, has now become this sophisticated setup of an array of cameras, state of the art tech and highly skilled analysts. But people are still struggling to evaluate a player’s role in the game away from his most obvious metrics. Expected goals and packing are some of the newer metrics trying to gauge the true performance of a player. To go with that, we have used the ICT index or the ‘Influence, Threat and Creativity’ index provided by FPL to see if we can have an alternate view of the so called ‘form’ in football.
For a background on the ICT index, it is a metric that condenses more than 40 different stats into one number. It takes into account incisiveness of a pass and location of player while playing it, among other things. In our earlier piece, we had mentioned the importance of ICT index for judging the performance of a player.
Enough of background story, now for some analysis. Alexis Sanchez and Christian Eriksen have arguably been the most important players for their respective teams this season. They are widely looked upon as players who can be relied upon always. But on seeing their ICT index movement over the course of this season, we get a different picture.
Their performance history looks really rocky, seems to peak, only to gradually drop to a low and then rise suddenly again. Their minutes played does not match the variance. So though they are playing almost 90 minutes each game, they are just not able to give their optimum always. This goes for the world’s most expensive player – Paul Pogba – as well as the ‘almost Premier League Player of the Season’ – Eden Hazard.
The Premier League season is long, and the players are also committed to cups, continental matches and international play – it is difficult to maintain a very high level of performance always. Such swings should be accepted as part of the game. Delving into the reasons for such swings can be a whole topic of discussion by itself. But we think may be fatigue due to mid-week fixtures, niggles/injuries to players or their on-field partners, home/away games and opposition setting themselves up for complete nullification of a particular player might be some of the major talking points. For example, Pep Guardiola often talks about studying the last three/four games of his upcoming opposition thoroughly. This might make the most recent performer of a team get extra attention from him and his players and hence he might be shut out of the game by the Manchester City defence/midfield. Conversely if a player hasn’t been playing his best football for the last few matches, he might escape the prowling eyes of opposition managers and players. This oversight, or reliance on recent form, might give him the opportunity to give his best and hence we might see a spike in his performance.
So who has been the most consistent of this inconsistent lot? We can see that Gylfi Sigurdsson, David Silva and James Milner, though not the top performers as far as mean ICT index is concerned, do not give a much varied performance every week. They can be expected to do a decent enough job week in week out. They are our steady and unwavering souls. Philippe Coutinho and Hueng-Min Son seem to either give a great game or go entirely missing as their spread is quite high. Since most of their performances have been below average, they are actually quite a gamble though. Even Pogba and Southampton’s Dusan Tadic have a high spread, but the majority of spread lies above average. Pogba, in particular, seems to have had a good season despite the poor play around him.
The best way to address the problem of inconsistency would be to have as many influential attacking players in the XI as possible and hope all of them don’t under perform on the same day. Below is the plot of mean ICT index of the top 20 midfielders.
There is only one Chelsea player in the top 20: Eden Hazard. The fascinating thing here is to look at this number after watching the United vs Chelsea fixture at Old Trafford. When Hazard got shackled and shadowed by Ander Herrera, Chelsea seemed devoid of ideas and creativity. The same can be said of the first 60 minutes in FA cup semi-final between Spurs and Chelsea. Such is his importance to Chelsea and that is indicative in the chart.
Paul Pogba is the sole representative of the Old Trafford faithful. For all the calls of an ‘underwhelming season’ and ‘just not worth it’ tags, he has been United’s most influential player over the course of the entire season.
Hull City have Kamil Grosicki in the top 20. Well that seems fine. “Turbo” has been their creative force and the man behind their late push for Premier League status. But he joined Hull only in January. To be their most dominant player after missing half the season speaks volumes about Hull’s and Grosicki’s story.
Liverpool make up almost 17% of the top 20 (Milner, Roberto Firmino, Coutinho, Adam Lallana and Sadio Mane). They are the most represented in top 20. Though they feel the pinch when one of the five misses out, their performances have not been as bad as other teams when missing their respective star performers.
Sunderland, Middlesbrough, Watford, Burnley and West Brom don’t have a single player in the list. Unsurprisingly, four of these five make up the bottom six of the table – clearly worth noting. Teams relying heavily on a single player suffer more owing to his inevitable inconsistency while teams that have a more spread out performance have a better chance of tackling the odds of the game.
Consistency looks to be a problem with football as much as with anything else in the world. The hot-hand fallacy looks to have made its way into the beautiful game as well. When evaluating a player’s performance in a given week, it is still fair to say “looks like if Eriksen has done well this week”, but we should remember his role can wane slowly over the next couple of weeks without warning. It is then up to the manager (real or fantasy) to devise a strategy to mask this drop. Klopp famously said of Pogba’s transfer to Manchester United “You always want to have the best, but building the group is necessary to be successful”. May be he is right. With so much variance in performance levels, putting all your eggs in one basket doesn’t make a lot of sense. While spreading the spend on a quite a few players and then giving them the opportunity to step up their levels might be the better option. A team is something greater than the sum of its parts and the Premier League is yet to learn the lesson.