We’re approaching the business end of the season. Points are crucial; to some teams at least, others don’t seem to care as much! With that in mind, Will Dyer (@W2Dyer) investigates the ‘Nothing To Play For’ theory…
WLB Analysis: Examining The ‘Nothing To Play For’ Theory
It’s that time of the season in the big European leagues when some teams are destined for mid-table nothingness. Many teams are safe from relegation but also have no chance of a European qualification spot. The same goes for sides in the lower leagues that have little to no prospects of promotion. These circumstances are regularly discussed in the media and lead many people to believe that fixtures between teams that need the points against teams that have nothing to play for, should lead to unexpected results.
So I’ve decided to investigate whether playing with the pressure off or on means you are more likely to get a result or not. I had no idea what the stats would throw up before looking in to past tables, so this should be without any bias and hopes to either prove or disprove the theory.
Premier League 2013-14 Case Study
Looking at the 2013/14 Premier League table, I have decided that after 28 games you could begin to tell who was going to finish mid-table, i.e. not get relegated but also not qualify for a European spot. Six teams have been selected for the study. They were placed 8th to 13th on the 8th March 2014:
- 8th Newcastle United – 43 points
- 9th Southampton – 42 points
- 10th West Ham – 31 points
- 11th Aston Villa – 31 points
- 12th Stoke City – 31 points
- 13th Hull – 30 points
For West Ham, Hull, Villa and Stoke to be relegated they were going to have to record less than 10 points in their next 10 games and that seemed unlikely. As for Newcastle and Southampton, they were five and six points behind Everton respectively, so a European place would have been an uphill task.
The idea is that those aforementioned sides will gain less from their remaining fixtures than many teams above and below them, as supposedly they have ‘nothing to play for’.
Over the next two months, Newcastle gained just six points to finish 10th on 49 points. Southampton gained 14 points to finish 8th on 56 points. Stoke gained a whopping 19 points to finish 9th on 50 points, West Ham gained just nine points to finish 13th on 40 points, Aston Villa collected seven points to finish 15th on 38 points and Hull picked up just seven points to finish 16th on 37 points.
So, overall, four of the six chosen sides gained less than a point-per-game. That suggests to me that this theory could have legs. Over that same period from the 8th March until the end of the season, the rest of the league gained the following points:
- Chelsea 66 points – 82 points; 16 points gained
- Liverpool 59 points – 84 points; 25 points gained
- Arsenal 59 points – 79 points; 20 points gained
- Man City 57 points – 86 points; 29 points gained
- Tottenham 53 points – 69 points; 16 points gained
- Man United 48 points – 64 points; 16 points gained
- Everton 48 points – 72 points; 24 points gained
- Swansea 29 points – 42 points; 13 points gained
- Norwich 29 points – 33 points; 4 points gained
- Crystal Palace 27 points – 45 points; 17 points gained
- West Brom 25 points – 36 points; 11 points gained
- Cardiff 25 points – 30 points; 5 points gained
- Sunderland 24 points – 38 points; 14 points gained
- Fulham 21 points – 32 points; 11 points gained
The six mid-table sides that I chose gained a combined 62 points from 58 games; on average that’s 1.07 points-per-game (PPG).
The Top-7 sides gained a combined 146 points from 71 games; on average 2.06 PPG. It also comes as no surprise that the Top-7 may have changed order but no other sides managed to break in to that runaway group.
At the same time teams from the Bottom-7 gained a combined 76 points from 69 games. On average that is 1.10 PPG. That is a higher PPG than the six mid-table teams achieved and shows that this theory really does exist to some extent.
The most promising aspect is that the fact mid-table sides will still be priced according to their position by the bookmakers and therefore by opposing them, punters could make good money. You could also look to back the Bottom-7 sides to pick up results, taking big prices and going against the grain.
Premier League 2014/15
So my hypothesis is that backing the Top and Bottom-7 sides and opposing mid-table teams in the final 10 games of the season would be a profitable strategy. Let’s translate that theory to the current Premier League table.
At the time of writing the Premier League has just finished Gameweek 29. My six mid-table choices are from the exact same places; 8th to 13th:
- 8th Stoke City – 42 points
- 9th Swansea – 40 points
- 10th West Ham – 39 points
- 11th Newcastle – 35 points
- 12th Crystal Palace – 33 points
- 13th West Brom – 33 points
Similar to the 2013/14 season, these six teams are all eight or more points off 7th place and also five points above 15th position, so relegation seems unlikely.
Last season’s Premier League would suggest that the above six sides are likely to underachieve somewhat for the remainder of the season, as a collective. It also suggests that the Top-7 will stamp their dominance in the fight for Top-4 finsh, the title and seeded European places, whilst the Bottom-7 will overachieve in order to try and escape the trapdoor to the Championship.
Obviously, one season and division is not enough to prove this theory, so below I have gone through a few more past seasons of all of the top four English divisions, Serie A, La Liga, Bundesliga and Ligue 1.
For all of these past seasons I have chosen to look at the Top-7, Mid-Table 6 and Bottom-7. Of course, those sides may move up or down and actually end up in a different ‘section’ of the table but in many cases the sides in those sections, the Top-7 especially, remain the same over the last 10 games.
Premier League 2012-13:
- Top-7 PPG in last 10 games – 2.01
- Mid-table-6 PPG in last 10 games – 0.98
- Bottom-7 PPG in last 10 games – 1.04
Swansea (mid-table) managed just six points in the selected period from the 4th March until the end of the season; that’s just one point more than Reading and QPR (both Bottom-7) managed and they finished 19th and 20th.
The highest points tally of the mid-table sides was West Ham who managed 13 points. Compare that to Arsenal who managed 26 in the Top-7 and Aston Villa who managed 17 in the Bottom-6.
It seems this season shows once again the ability of mid-table sides to let results slip at the end of the season.
Premier League 2011-12:
- Top-7 PPG in last 10 games -1.78
- Mid-Table-6 PPG in last 10 games – 1.23
- Bottom 7 PPG in last 10 games – 1.09
There were some highs and lows in the sections over the final 10 games; Everton collected 19 points from mid-table to save the blushes of Sunderland and Stoke who got eight and nine respectively. As impressive as Everton’s late-season points haul was, it got no way near Wigan’s – the lower side got a whopping 22 points from their last 10 games in their famous ‘Great Escape’ under Roberto Martinez.
Overall the mid-table sides actually outperformed the Bottom-7 over the last 10 games in this season but as a whole, they still scored lower than they had throughout the first part of the season; 1.23 compared to their combined PPG of 1.30 for the first 28 games. That suggests to me that opposing them this season would still have been fruitful.
One other noticeable aspect is that there is usually a good gap between 7th and 8th with 10 games remaining; in 2011/12 there was five points between Liverpool in 7th and Sunderland in 8th. A similar gap was also true in 2012/13, 2013/14 and is true of the current Premier League season where there are seven points between Southampton (7th) and Stoke (8th). That makes the categorisation of sections of the table really quite easy for this division. In some seasons there is not a great gap between 13th and 14th to quantify the Bottom-7 but the stats seem to work, nevertheless.
So we now have four years of Premier League football as a sample size. I think that is more than adequate to prove my hypothesis holds true in the Premier League, at least in the modern game anyway.
Put simply, if you were to draw a line graph of the mid-table sides’ PPG over the course of the season, there would be a big drop off towards the end.
There are 11 games to go in this season’s La Liga but there already seems to be a solid Top-7. Let’s see if the same pattern exists in past Spanish seasons as has been present in the Premier League.
La Liga 2013-14:
- Top-7 PPG in last 10 games – 1.79
- Mid-Table-6 PPG in last 10 games – 1.12
- Bottom-7 PPG in last 10 games – 1.2
So last season’s La Liga saw a pretty astronomic increase in the Bottom-7 sides’ PPG; every team except Real Betis, who finished bottom, managed an average of 1 PPG or more.
Whereas, the mid-table sides, as per usual, took their eye off the ball and scored a lower PPG of 1.12. Espanyol were the main culprits with just six points on the board from their last 10 games.
Based on those statistics, I would suggest perhaps opposing Espanyol, Celta Vigo and Rayo Vallecano who currently occupy three of the mid-table positions and could be in for a weak end to this season.
There are nine games to go in Ligue 1. As usual there is a sizeable gap between 7th and 8th of four points so the teams perhaps worth opposing or avoiding in the final 10 games are Lille, Rennes, Bastia, Nantes, Reims and Guingamp.
Ligue 1 2013-14:
- Top-7 PPG in last 10 games – 1.74
- Mid-Table-6 PPG in last 10 games – 1 05
- Bottom-7 PPG in last 10 games – 1.19
A quick look over last season’s trends in Ligue 1 shows the hypothesis to be true in France as well. Just two sides in mid-table averaged over 1 PPG in the last 10 games of 2013/14 – they were Bordeaux and Lorient.
Even with their decent effort the section as a whole did pretty poorly. A horrid run of results for Nice almost saw them relegated thanks to a super-human effort from Sochaux. The strugglers somehow put up 18 points from their final 10 games to leave them just two points off Nice but it wasn’t quite enough.
Serie A 2013-14:
- Top-7 PPG in last 10 games – 1.78
- Mid-Table-6 PPG in last 10 games – 1.53
- Bottom-7 PPG in last 10 games – 0.96
Looking at last season, it seems like the theory does not translate so well to Italian football. This was not helped by Livorno collecting just one point and Bologna only six points in their final 10 games but perhaps shows the bottom of the Serie A is extremely weak in comparison to the rest of the division that year.
One other possible explanation is that the upper-mid table sides are not that far off the lower Top-7 sides in terms of quality and therefore find it relatively easy to make up ground on them and land a European slot.
That was made clear by AC Milan and Torino, both hauling in over 20 points in their last 10 games in 2013-14 to take their places in 7th and 8th. This is also supported by the stats from the year prior.
Serie A 2012-13:
- Top-7 PPG in last 10 games – 1.89
- Mid-Table-6 PPG in last 10 games – 1.37
- Bottom-7 PPG in last 10 games – 0.81
The sides at the foot of the Serie A can’t seem to find that something extra to get results in the last 10 games, not even in the frantic desperation to stay up. Pescara and Siena in 2012-13 managed just one and six points respectively in the last period.
This seems to be completely different to what the stragglers from other European divisions manage to achieve when they are under the cosh.
Right now, there are only two well defined sections. The bottom-half of the table doesn’t have any sizeable point gaps and it would probably be unwise to oppose the hugely under-achieving Borussia Dortmund. So let’s look at last season to see if the theory stacks up.
- Top-6 PPG in last 10 games – 1.95
- Mid-Table-6 PPG in last 10 games – 1.35
- Bottom-6 PPG in last 10 games – 0.95
Similar to Italy then. As a whole the Bottom-6 struggle to up their PPG. Freiburg did manage to up their PPG with 17 points in their last 10 games to lift themselves to safety. Stuttgart managed to put up 12 points too but, like the relegated Italian sides, Braunschweig and Nuremberg had an awful end of season which saw them all relegated with a whimper.
Backing the bottom sides and opposing the mid-table teams would not have been a successful strategy over the last 10 games of the season in that year’s Bundesliga – unless managing to spot Freiburg and Stuttgart’s upturn and Hertha Berlin’s dreadful five point return from mid-table before all those patterns came to fruition.
However, after checking previous seasons, the results show that the Bundesliga is in fact also capable of producing battlers in the Bottom-6. Perhaps the run-in of fixtures for the bottom sides in the 2013/14 season were particularly hard and ensured they struggled more than usual.
- Top-6 PPG in last 10 games – 1.92
- Mid-Table-6 PPG in last 10 games – 1.03
- Bottom-6 PPG in last 10 games – 1.2
Only Greuther Furth got left behind in the Bottom-6 of the 2012/13 season. Mainz and especially Fortuna Dusseldorf from mid-table had dreadful ends to their season; Fortuna’s two point tally over the last 10 games saw them plummet from seven points clear of 18th to finish 19th and four points off safety.
Overall, as a general rule, Bottom-6 sides over-achieve in relation to their points tally with 10 games to go whilst mid-table sides under-achieve. This can be attributed to all manner of reasons but the most likely one does seem to be the ‘nothing to play for’ aspect of being in a mid-table position.
After looking at past top-flight English seasons and last season’s European tables we can see that the theory pretty much holds up throughout. Anomalies are to be expected as nothing is constant in football.
Evidently picking out those few sides every season that improve their results in their final few games would lead to really good profit margin but it seems just backing the bottoms sides as a whole in games against mid-table sides could be a profitable strategy too.
As a general rule of thumb, my findings would suggest the following could be profitable avenues:
- Back the bottom six or seven sides of Ligue 1, La Liga and the Premier League to get a result in the last 10 games of the season when they are playing one of the six mid-table sides.
- Oppose the six teams from mid-table. Though if you have doubts avoiding them completely could be better than opposing them.
- Back the top six or seven sides in Italy and Germany when they are playing teams from the bottom six/seven; there seems to be less risk of an upset occurring in this period of this season in the Bundesliga and Serie A.
- In games between two mid-table sides, you could back the draw. With no real need to win the game the draw could become far more likely.
- Back the top six or seven sides in all European divisions when they are playing mid-table teams.
Do you believe in the ‘nothing to play for' theory? Has Will's piece made you think differently about backing mid-table sides?
We'd love to hear your views so let us know in the comments box below!