Big Four Teams Are Playing Copycats With Premier League Results


It used to be a lot easier. All top flight matches used to be played on a Saturday at 3pm GMT. There were no early kick-offs. No late kick-offs and, heaven forbid, no Sunday matches. Now, of course, everything has been turned upside down.

Because only a few of the matches are played at the same time these days, it makes me wonder how much the results are being affected. Take this past weekend for example. Arsenal drew Middlesbrough 1-1 in the early kick-off. Chances are good that the Liverpool and Manchester United players were watching the game on television. If not, they undoubtedly knew the result of the game before they played their matches against Hull and Spurs respectively.

How much of a psychological impact did the Arsenal draw have on Liverpool and Man United players? It’s impossible to know for sure but it’s very possible that Liverpool and Man United players may have breathed a sigh of relief that the Gunners are falling further behind the pack. In contrast, an emphatic win by Arsenal at the Riverside Stadium may have given ‘Pool and United players an additional incentive to win their own matches.

Then, there was the Sunday match between Chelsea and West Ham United. The Blues, knowing that Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester United all drew on Saturday, knew that a win against West Ham would have moved Chelsea into first place in the league. However, they crumbled and ended the match 1-1.

If anything, knowing that a win was necessary to move into top spot probably put more pressure on the Chelsea players.

It makes you wonder how the results would have been different if all four of the matches involving the Big Four had been played at the same time.

It’s not just the Big Four that I believe are psychologically affected by the results of their fellow teams. After seeing Middlesbrough’s brave 1-1 draw against Arsenal, that display probably gave Hull City and Tottenham Hotspur self belief in that they too could pull off a surprise draw or win.

The same applies to West Ham who may have been inspired by the display of Hull City and Spurs to help them go on and score the first goal against Chelsea and end the game 1-1 in a heroic fight.

A similar example happened a few weeks ago when three of the Big Four teams had nil nil results (Chelsea 0-0 Newcastle, Liverpool 0-0 Fulham, and Aston Villa 0-0 Manchester United). Arsenal was the exception when they lost 3-0 to Manchester City that weekend.
I’m convinced that the results have a big impact on each of the teams in the Big Four. Teams will never admit this, but many of them take their feet off the accelerator, feeling that they’re in a safety zone if one of their biggest rivals wins or draws. Sure, Premier League teams always want to go out and win their matches, but as we can see from trends during the past few weeks, there is no one team that’s walking away with the Premier League title this season. It’ll probably come down to the one team who can maintain a consistent run of form near the top of the table. Until then, we’ll continue to experience the topsy turvy results in the Premier League.

13 thoughts on “Big Four Teams Are Playing Copycats With Premier League Results”

  1. Any manager who allows his team to take their foot off of the accelerator in mid-season based on another club's result the previous day or earlier that same day should be fired. You go out and win and don't worry about the other clubs. Yes, they keep an eye on each other. Nothing will ever change that, but if you're taking it easy because somebody else lost, then something is wrong with your motivation.

    You play to win the game. (Herm Edwards, New York Jets press conference)

  2. I dunno, Gaff. That seems like a hard sell to me. It is an interesting thing to think about, considering that a lot of the top teams do seem to struggle in unison. But as a person who has played competitive football through college, I dont really buy that watching the other scorelines has that big of a psychological effect. Sure, everyone gets some pre-game jitters, but once the whistle blows all you are thinking about is getting a good first touch/first pass and getting a hard first tackle.

  3. I find it hard to believe that professional football players are so stupid that they don't understand they have the capacity to compete with any team. I also find it virtually impossible to believe that players on Chelsea, for example, as so clueless that they don't understand that when their competitors falter it's a great opportunity for them to move ahead.

    Has anyone EVER done any kind of statistical work to try and quantify any of this received wisdom about the psychology of football? It all sounds like a classic example of taking an incredibly small sample size and then intuiting results that fit preconceived notions.

    Take form, for example. Is there any reason to believe that a team with a true talent level of X who performed abysmally in the previous week is any more or less likely to be bad this week? It sure *sounds* like it ought to be true and the entire realm of punditry is based around this idea. But is there any actual evidence?

    I don't ask these questions (merely) rhetorically. If there have been studies I would love to see them.

  4. I'm going to have to side with The Gaffer on this one. Fantastic article, and I buy into your argument. How often do we see teams either play up to their rivals or down to their rivals? Look at United in the 2006/07 season away to Everton. Chelsea had just dropped points at home to Bolton (2-2) before kickoff, and United simply DID NOT stop, even after going down 2-0. You could tell they knew the title was theirs to be had, and they played their hearts out.

  5. Not to be rude, but I'm just asking for *any* statistical study of these factors. Pointing to one game a couple years ago (or referencing “human nature”) is not very persuasive.

    I am simply not familiar with work this on football, so maybe there is something unique to this game that makes it different. But baseball – which I know quite a bit about – is similarly full of stories like this which impute psychological motives to everything but which are almost never borne out by the actual data. Now, as I said, I'm ready to be persuaded that the stop-start individualism of baseball does not correlate to the team-based flowing nature of football, and that the difference is so extreme that all these psychological explanations really do apply. I just have yet to actually see evidence for it.

    Show me something that proves that how teams do in particular matches is anything other than random variation around their talent levels and I'll shut up.

  6. Charles, it's a theory based on my observations. There may be statistical studies down out there, but I'm not aware of any. If any of the readers do know of any, I'd be interested in reading them too.

    The Gaffer

  7. Charles,

    Based on the baseball comparison, I'm guessing you're an American like myself. One thing I learned quickly about football, and European sports in general, is that they aren't nearly as statistical as what we have here in America (this pitcher throws 95% fastballs on Wednesdays after 7:00pm, etc.). Also, I don't see how it's possible to quantify these psychological effects, especially considering there's no way to see what would happen if matches were played simultaneously.

    I referenced the United – Everton match because on that day you could really SEE in their play how badly they wanted it, knowing that just an hour earlier the title became clearer. In support of the Gaffer, I can't see a single way to “prove” it, especially with statistics. This is just one of those things you'll need to see for yourself.

  8. Brian,

    I think you are on to something important, but that you are being perhaps too pessimistic.

    I do think you are right that it is something we “see.” We are employing whatever our theory of mind (in the technical, cognitive faculty sense) turns out to be in order to interpret others. I do not have a lot of confidence in this, however, as there is no decision procedure for resolving conflict.

    Yet, there are certainly grounds for statistical analysis on the matter. A lot of the advanced work in baseball is done by studies of correlation – by determining how strongly some statistic correlates with another (for example, whether OBP or BA correlates better with winning to take a simple case). You could study teams which started after their rivals, and see if there was any difference. You could establish more stringent conditions on cases in which the earlier game was favorable or unfavorable to the second team, etc. Now, this would only establish correlation, and not causation – but a robust correlation would at least provide evidence in favor of the hypothesis.

    If, on the other hand, despite the fact that we “see” it, there is no correlation, then this would falsify the hypothesis. So these sorts of methods could at least determine if the hypothesis was viable, even if (and you are right), actual psychological motivations are too difficult to give a complete account of.

  9. What jm said. Old school baseball folks are exactly as convinced that there are intangible elements that cannot possibly be studied. That they insist on this in the face of a lot of evidence to the contrary only makes me more skeptical of the assertion of folks in other sports that their theories are true.

    Statistics is emphatically not about “trivia” like X player has gone 7 for 17 against Y pitcher. The premise of statistics is that any small sample size will be so gummed up by random variation that it holds virtually no testable significance. This is true in sports, economics, politics, advertising and countless other areas. The goal should be to offer data sets large enough to test whether the prevailing theories actually bear out.

    If teams really do behave in a certain way following certain results, then there ought to be evidence for it.

    It's important to note that this is a DIFFERENT project than the one that you have engaged in with this particular match. That is a historical analysis, which attempts to tell the story of that particular event. Your story may very well be perfectly accurate. But no story of that event should have anything but the smallest bearing on the statistical project of attempting to explain and predict the general patterns of football.

    Obviously, psychology can and does have a tremendous effect. But I have a hard time believing it has anything close to the predictive value that it's given. Rather, once an event occurs, it's very easy to construct a story about why it *had* to happen that way – a story which could have been told completely opposite if things had gone differently.

    Malcolm Gladwell has a book out right now that focuses on this phenomenon. One conclusion many people have drawn is that we (humans, that is) tend to assume that results necessarily follow from personal characteristics. Successful people are assumed to be that way because of their intelligence, determination, character, heart, etc. We have a very difficult time recognizing that out of many, many people who work really hard only one can end up on top. And while there's plenty of reason to believe that the winners contributed to their success in a general sense, there's actually almost no evidence to support the ideas that the winners are particularly any better than the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th place folks.

    Surely people have looked into this for football. People discuss the “form table” as if it has tremendous value. Why? Is there any evidence that how a side has done in the past six matches correlates to how they will do in the upcoming one any better than their overall season record?

    Is there any evidence that a striker who scored in his previous match is more likely (as compared to his overall record) to score in his next one? It seems obvious that there should be, and yet it seems equally obvious that a hitter in baseball will be in “the zone” and thus more likely to hit well in an upcoming game. The evidence of our eyes tells us this must be so, because we all have seen guys get “hot” and it seems like everything is golden. However, studies have shown that such examples are rare. Not impossible – of course – but far less common than we would believe from theorizing.

    The general conclusion is that most examples of “hot” and “cold” are statistical noise – the outliers at the ends of a fairly natural bell curve.

  10. Charles, I just finished reading Malcolm Gladwell's book, The Outliers. If I have time over the next few weeks, I plan on addressing one of his ideas that he mentions in his book regarding soccer. The book is a fascinating read, by the way.

    The Gaffer

  11. Will be looking forward to read it I am very prepared BTW tp be convinced that some of these factors do play a huge role in this sport in a way they do not in others. It's part of why I have grown so fascinated by football after growing up a child of American sports.

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