Liverpool take heart! The myth about facing teams ‘fighting for their lives’

Charlie Eccleshare takes a look at the numbers behind recent Premier League run-ins

By Charlie Eccleshare
Manuel Pellegrini's City host 14th-placed Aston Villa on Wednesday

When football fans, pundits and probably even managers look at their final fixtures, instinctively they hope for games against teams with little or nothing to play for.

These are supposedly ‘gimme’ fixtures, and much preferable to playing teams ‘fighting for their lives’ against relegation, who are viewed with mild to extreme trepidation.

Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers went as far as saying that players in relegation-threatened teams are “fighting for their livelihoods, their lives, their children, the supporters”.

That may be a little extreme, but in any given week of any season during the run-in, you will hear similar from players and pundits, and not just the Jamie Redknapps of this world. This is as entrenched a footballing cliché as prefacing a point with ‘at the end of the day’.

How relieved Everton must have been then to be playing 12th-placed Crystal Palace and eighth-placed Southampton in their run-in, both comfortably in mid-table, with their lives and livelihoods looking set fair for at least another year.

But the Toffees lost both games, and in so doing blew their chance of Champions League qualification.

Then on Monday night, Liverpool threw away a 3-0 lead to effectively concede the title against Crystal Palace, by now marooned in 11th place and in theory ‘on the beach’.

So is the fear of teams ‘fighting for their lives’ and the relative relish about facing teams with little or nothing to play for justified?

No, not really – on either count.

Looking at this season and the previous five – a sample size of almost 200 matches – for teams chasing the league or a Champions League spot, the teams they are least likely to drop points against are those in the ‘fighting for the lives’ category (which were categorized for consistency’s sake as being within three points of the relegation zone at the time of the match being played).

Click here to see the numbers in full

What this means is that League and Champions League-chasing teams are actually more likely to drop points against teams in the 14/15th-11th bracket with little or nothing to play for.

They’re considerably more likely to drop points to teams in the 10th-eighth/seventh group, who besides trying to avoid Europa League qualification, have nothing at stake.

As one would expect, Champions League place-chasing teams take plenty of points off title-challenging teams and vice versa. Where Champions League place-chasing sides or fellow title challengers were playing each other, the games were not counted as naturally a total of three or four points would be dropped by the two teams.

What the data really shows is that ability rather than fighting spirit is still harder to play against, even at this late stage of the season.

It reflects well on the Premier League that teams with little to play for, Newcastle aside, offer some resistance (this could also be motivated by the extra £1m prize money per Premier League place) but our assumptions about the difficulty or lack thereof of these opponents perhaps betrays the English belief that grit and determination are greater assets than competence.

Because these relegation-battling teams may be fighting for their lives but they’re also probably not very good – or at least haven’t been for the previous 32 games.

And though they might be under extreme pressure to play well, their players, who have got them to this point, will not always be especially adept at dealing with this.

This is not to say that relegation-threatened teams are walkovers – of course they’re not, and as Wigan have proved over the last few seasons, they can be nightmare opponents towards the end of a season.

But there’s a degree of confirmation bias here – we focus more on the dropped points against relegation-threatened sides because it suits the narrative we’ve created. A win by a relegation threatened-side against a title or Champions League chasing team is also bound to stick in memories for longer as it creates two major stories instead of one (a mid-table team getting a win or a draw at this late stage of the season is in itself not much of a story).

Recent seasons are littered with teams having had their league or Champions League dreams shattered by teams with seemingly nothing to play for. The decisive games for Manchester United in their second-place finishes of 2011-12 and 2009-10 were the 4-4 draw with Everton (seventh when the game was played with no chance of Champions League qualification) and the 0-0 with Blackburn (11th with no possibility of relegation or Europe).

There’s no scientific way of predicting how a team will do in their run-in but there should be less reliance on the knee-jerk ‘fighting for their lives’ metric.

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