In the second of a two-part article, former Fantasy Premier League champion Simon March looks at player and team form.
In my previous article, I discussed how periods of above-average performance among football players will eventually be balanced out by periods of below-average performance and, as a result, we often find ourselves investing in ‘in-form’ FPL players just at the point where their form is about to decline.
While this concept of ‘regressing to the mean’ is a statistical inevitability, it is also a somewhat reductive way of viewing the subject matter at hand. We are, after all, talking about living, breathing human beings, not simply numbers on a spreadsheet. While we can look at how form fluctuates in terms of broad, statistical trends, we also need to consider the fact that teams and players are adaptive, not constant.
With this in mind, and with the objective of continuing this analysis into why form ends and whether this can be predicted, part two of this series will focus on the human element of this equation.
Humans are evolving creatures, responding to changes in our environment and adjusting our behaviours accordingly. Football players, and indeed football teams, are equally adaptive entities. Often, when we look at a player or team in form, we often make the mistake of assuming that things will remain constant and this level of performance will continue indefinitely.
If you accept the common idea that form is connected to confidence levels, this would be an entirely logical viewpoint. If high confidence should help a player play well, playing well should continue to boost confidence, creating a self-sustaining virtuous cycle of positive form.
What this perspective doesn’t consider, however, are the forces working in opposition to this form, both internally and externally and, because humans adapt, the more extreme the levels of form, good or bad, the greater these opposing forces are likely to become.
A team who is performing badly is likely to focus on their key weaknesses whereas a team who is performing well is likely to focus on the things they are doing best, potentially at the expense of other important things. Meanwhile, the teams that face these teams will be trying to exploit their known weakness and nullify their key strengths.
To explain this in more detail, it’s worth considering a famous study from WWII concerning the reinforcing of bomber planes. For a long time, the armour on bomber planes were reinforced based on where bullet holes were found to be clustered upon their return to base. The theory was that, if these were the places most commonly hit by the enemy, then these should be the priority areas to protect.
However, upon observing this practice, the statistician Abraham Wald pointed out that the samples that this theory was based on were comprised entirely of the planes that actually made it back to their base, they didn’t include those that were shot down.
Consequently, he argued, the bullet holes actually highlighted the areas where the plane could survive being hit and it was, in fact, the other areas that needed to be reinforced first.
This effect is referred to as ‘survivorship bias’; a form of sampling bias where the data analysed is unrepresentative due to it having already been filtered of the data that, for whatever reason, didn’t make it to the study.
We often see a similar effect in football. Teams may appear unstoppable in attack or impregnable in defence but, frequently, this appearance is exaggerated due to the way teams play against them or, often, the way teams don’t play against them.
Teams can appear dominant for long periods of time and perhaps even so dominant that it looks like they might never be dislodged. Think the Arsenal ‘Invincibles’ team of 2003/04, José Mourinho’s Chelsea of the mid-2000s, Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona of 2008 to 2012 or, more recently, Liverpool for the past couple of seasons under Jürgen Klopp.
Over time, however, even the best teams lose their edge. They get so used to what has been working for them working for them, they either stop working on it or, even worse, they only work on it, leaving them vulnerable due to a lack of a viable ‘Plan B’.
Meanwhile, as teams dominate, more data becomes available on how such teams play and how best to play against them. Sometimes all it takes is one tactical innovation; double-marking a certain player, surrendering space on the wings to pack the centre or exploiting an aerial weakness to bring a streak of dominance to an end. Perversely therefore, it is often when teams appear at their most dominant that they are, in fact, at their most vulnerable.
A similar effect can also apply to players. There have been times when certain players such as Leicester’s Jamie Vardy (£10.1m) looked like they might never stop scoring but, eventually, they always do. You cannot achieve extraordinary success without promoting a similar-scale response from the opposition. Equally periods of sustained success can lead to overconfidence in a player, laziness or even choking as the pressure or attention on them mounts. All of these can precipitate a decline in their performance.
Eventually, teams get ‘found out’ by opponents while dangerous players receive increased attention, sometimes nullifying their contribution. This may last until they can adapt to the new challenge.This cycle between observation and adaptation is often a big part of what we are actually referring to when we talk about ‘form’.
So what does this mean for FPL? Well, firstly, we should be particularly wary of players during long scoring streaks and teams who are going through phases of extreme dominance, especially when they are winning games by large margins.
The greater the margin of victory, the greater the likelihood of complacency among the players on the winning side and, for their opponents, there is more information on what to do, or perhaps what not to do, when facing them.
This effect, I’d argue, is part of the reason why we often see teams go from chalking up cricket scores one week to barely having a shot on target the next.
Equally, it means we shouldn’t write off teams who are conceding a lot of goals. Some teams will simply not have the ability or personnel to fix their problems or adapt but some will, and it is unlikely that any team will be working harder on their inadequacies than a team who have just suffered a big defeat.
This may have significant implications for the much-favoured strategy of ‘targeting the whipping boys’ because the whipping boys may not actually stay whipping boys for as long as we might hope.
At the other end of the spectrum, there is every chance that a team who are keeping many clean sheets will eventually struggle to maintain them. The opportunity for complacency grows with each shut out and, even if by trial and error, the opposition will eventually find their achilles heel.
While I’ve suggested some warning signs for when form might be about to end, it is still very difficult to predict. While teams will not win by 4 goals every match, you also won’t want to sell their assets before that run is over. Equally predicting the exact end or beginning of a period of defensive solidity could involve a lot of guesswork.
However, this perspective might cause us to show more patience with teams and players who are going through a period of underperformance. For such a player or a team, those problems can compound and cause a drain on your FPL team’s resources, or they may precipitate a rebound in their fortunes, leading to an opportunity. The ability to judge the difference is one of the key skills that really good, or really lucky, FPL managers tend to have.
From a strategic perspective, therefore, the best approach in all respects is likely to be one of moderation. The more you invest into a certain team or fixture, the more exposed you are to any sudden change in their performances so, while by all means target the whipping boys, it’s worth considering whether you really need, say, three players and your Captain tied up in that scenario.
Finally, rather than focusing on the teams who are likely overperforming, we might be better off focusing on the teams who are doing well, but not too well. It is probably no coincidence that the longest unbeaten stretches in football tend to come from teams performing fairly moderately in attack as they never win by enough to become complacent or for opponents to adopt special tactics for them.
Therefore, teams that are winning by smaller margins or attacking players who are delivering a goal or an assist each week may well offer more consistency for longer than teams or players delivering a run of huge hauls.
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