On Wednesday I talked about the fact that Aston Villa could quickly distance themselves from last year's squad with a strong first-half performance this season. Unfortunately, that may be pretty difficult.
To get a bit of a preview at the upcoming season, I decided to try and find some statistical way to figure out what the toughest stretches of matches would be for Aston Villa. I can eyeball the fixture list and come up with some ideas, but I was interested in finding a more objective measure of what I was looking for. With a little bit of help from Graham MacAree of We Ain't Got No History, I devised what is essentially a difficulty coefficient for each team in the Premier League.
The math was pretty simple. I figured out the average number of points that each team in the Premier League ended with in the 2013-14 season (53.1). I then figured out how many points above or below this average each club was and divided by 38 to obtain the points per match above or below average. A team that got 0.0 would have been perfectly average, with higher numbers being better. Manchester City, of course, were tops with .866 points per match above the league average, while Cardiff were bottom with -.608.
But, that doesn't give us the whole story, as we know that (at least ostensibly) playing at home is easier than playing on the road. Graham clued me in to the fact that home-pitch advantage was worth roughly .25 points per match. This means that when Villa play Manchester City in Manchester, their coefficient is 1.116, but when the Citizens visit Villa park it's .616.
From here it's pretty easy to take rolling averages of any span of matches. The stretch with the highest number should be the most difficult and the stretch with the lowest should be the easiest. See? Math isn't so bad!
For the sake of this project, just as I did on the corresponding fixtures table, I substituted Leicester City for Norwich City, Burnley for Fulham, and QPR for Cardiff. There are obviously some problems with this methodology (mainly the same as the ones we saw in looking at corresponding fixtures: the clubs aren't the same as they were last season), but once I ran the numbers, it seemed to pass the eye test pretty well. So let's get to the results!
What are the toughest and easiest stretches of schedule?
The toughest 3-match stretch is absolutely no surprise: at Liverpool, Arsenal, and at Chelsea. Simply lookingat the schedule could have told anyone that. Those three matches are the opening of the toughest 5- and 10-match stretches as well. The difficulty coefficient for the trio of death is .84. Keep in mind that out of 38 possibilities (home and away to every other club) that would be the equivalent of the fifth-hardest match three times in a row. Good lord. Expand to see the five matches started there and you add Manchester City's trip to Villa Park and a sojourn to Goodison Park and everything looks terrible.
Later in the season there is one more deathly stretch and, wouldn't you know it, it's Liverpool, at Arsenal, and Chelsea. Same three teams, but a bit easier given that two of the three matches are at Villa Park rather than on the road. Again, the eye test confirms what the numbers tell us: that trio of matches will not be fun.
On the flip side of things, there are a few stretches where Villa would do very well to capitalize on easier-than-normal scheduling. Twice they have a 3-match run that has a difficulty coefficient of -.46. Put into terms of the whole season, that would be the equivalent of playing the 10th-easiest (of 38) matchup three times in a row. Those two runs are Sunderland, Crystal Palace and at Leicester City and then West Brom, at Sunderland, and Swansea City.
This is where I might quibble with what the numbers have given me just a bit. Yes there are two matches on the road, but the run of Southampton (especially after they've sold their squad), at Burnley, and at Crystal Palace strikes me as perhaps the easier stretch. If we extend that to five matches, we can add a visit from Leicester City and a trip to West Brom for a pretty easy run.
Can we trust the numbers?
But these numbers are just a tool to help us analyze what Villa have in store in a slightly different manner. I'm actually quite happy that they line up fairly well with what I'd expect, but what do they help tell us? Well, the first half of the season will unquestionably the more difficult of the two. Unfortunately, those are the matches in which Aston Villa underachieved last season, so if they are to turn things around this year, they will have to defy expectations.
The second half of the season, though, provides a bit of a breather. The good news is that if Aston Villa are in the relegation battle by the time the new year rolls around, they will have ample opportunity to dig themselves out of a hole.
If you'd like to see the numbers, I've made the spreadsheet available for viewing here. If you'd like to see how I derived the numbers (and not just the averages) that spreadsheet is here. And please, let me know what you think in the comments!