What Ails Liverpool

So Liverpool FC has had a mixed season so far. They’re second in the Premier League with 36 points from 14 games (only points dropped being draws against ManCity, Chelsea and Arsenal), but are on the verge of going out of the Champions League, having lost all three away games.

Yesterday’s win over Everton was damn lucky, down to a 96th minute freak goal scored by Divock Origi (I’d forgotten he’s still at the club). Last weekend’s 3-0 against Watford wasn’t as comfortable as the scoreline suggested, the scoreline having been opened only midway through the second half. The 2-0 against Fulham before that was similarly a close-fought game.

Of concern to most Liverpool fans has been the form of the starting front three – Mo Salah, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane. The trio has missed a host of chances this season, and the team has looked incredibly ineffective in the away losses in the Champions League (the only shot on target in the 2-1 loss against PSG being the penalty that was scored by Milner).

There are positives, of course. The defence has been tightened considerably compared to last season. Liverpool aren’t leaking goals the way they did last season. There have been quite a few clean sheets so far this season. So far there has been no repeat of last season’s situation where they went 4-1 up against ManCity, only to quickly let in two goals and then set up a tense finish.

So my theory is this – each of the front three of Liverpool has an incredibly low strike rate. I don’t know if the xG stat captures this, but the number of chances required by each of Mane, Salah and Firmino before they can convert is rather low. If the average striker converts one in two chances, all of these guys convert one in four (these numbers are pulled out of thin air. I haven’t looked at the statistics).

And even during the “glory days” of last season when Liverpool was scoring like crazy, this low strike rate remained. Instead, what helped then was a massive increase in the number of chances created. The one game I watched live (against Spurs at Wembley), what struck me was the number of chances Salah kept missing. But as the chances kept getting created, he ultimately scored one (Liverpool lost 4-1).

What I suspect is that as Klopp decided to tighten things up at the back this season, the number of chances being created has dropped. And with the low strike rate of each of the front three, this lower number of chances translates into much lower number of goals being scored. If we want last season’s scoring rate, we might also have to accept last season’s concession rate (though this season’s goalie is much much better).

There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.

Biases, statistics and luck

Tomorrow Liverpool plays Manchester City in the Premier League. As things stand now I don’t plan to watch this game. This entire season so far, I’ve only watched two games. First, I’d gone to a local pub to watch Liverpool’s visit to Manchester City, back in September. Liverpool got thrashed 5-0.

Then in October, I went to Wembley to watch Tottenham Hotspur play Liverpool. The Spurs won 4-1. These two remain Liverpool’s only defeats of the season.

I might consider myself to be a mostly rational person but I sometimes do fall for the correlation-implies-causation bias, and think that my watching those games had something to do with Liverpool’s losses in them. Never mind that these were away games played against other top sides which attack aggressively. And so I have this irrational “fear” that if I watch tomorrow’s game (even if it’s from a pub), it might lead to a heavy Liverpool defeat.

And so I told Baada, a Manchester City fan, that I’m not planning to watch tomorrow’s game. And he got back to me with some statistics, which he’d heard from a podcast. Apparently it’s been 80 years since Manchester City did the league “double” (winning both home and away games) over Liverpool. And that it’s been 15 years since they’ve won at Anfield. So, he suggested, there’s a good chance that tomorrow’s game won’t result in a mauling for Liverpool, even if I were to watch it.

With the easy availability of statistics, it has become a thing among football commentators to supply them during the commentary. And from first hearing, things like “never done this in 80 years” or “never done that for last 15 years” sounds compelling, and you’re inclined to believe that there is something to these numbers.

I don’t remember if it was Navjot Sidhu who said that statistics are like a bikini (“what they reveal is significant but what they hide is crucial” or something). That Manchester City hasn’t done a double over Liverpool in 80 years doesn’t mean a thing, nor does it say anything that they haven’t won at Anfield in 15 years.

Basically, until the mid 2000s, City were a middling team. I remember telling Baada after the 2007 season (when Stuart Pearce got fired as City manager) that they’d be surely relegated next season. And then came the investment from Thaksin Shinawatra. And the appointment of Sven-Goran Eriksson as manager. And then the youtube signings. And later the investment from the Abu Dhabi investment group. And in 2016 the appointment of Pep Guardiola as manager. And the significant investment in players after that.

In other words, Manchester City of today is a completely different team from what they were even 2-3 years back. And they’re surely a vastly improved team compared to a decade ago. I know Baada has been following them for over 15 years now, but they’re unrecognisable from the time he started following them!

Yes, even with City being a much improved team, Liverpool have never lost to them at home in the last few years – but then Liverpool have generally been a strong team playing at home in these years! On the other hand, City’s 18-game winning streak (which included wins at Chelsea and Manchester United) only came to an end (with a draw against Crystal Palace) rather recently.

So anyways, here are the takeaways:

  1. Whether I watch the game or not has no bearing on how well Liverpool will play. The instances from this season so far are based on 1. small samples and 2. biased samples (since I’ve chosen to watch Liverpool’s two toughest games of the season)
  2. 80-year history of a fixture has no bearing since teams have evolved significantly in these 80 years. So saying a record stands so long has no meaning or predictive power for tomorrow’s game.
  3. City have been in tremendous form this season, and Liverpool have just lost their key player (by selling Philippe Coutinho to Barcelona), so City can fancy their chances. That said, Anfield has been a fortress this season, so Liverpool might just hold (or even win it).

All of this points to a good game tomorrow! Maybe I should just watch it!

 

 

Revenue management at Liverpool Football Club

Liverpool Football Club, of which I’ve been a fan for nearly eleven years now, is in the midst of a storm with fans protesting against high ticket prices. The butt of the fans’ ire has been the new £77 ticket that will be introduced next season. Though there will be few tickets that will be sold at that price, the existence of the price point has been enough to provoke the fans, many of whom walked out in the 77th minute of the home draw against Sunderland last weekend.

For a stadium that routinely sells out its tickets, an increase in ticket prices should be a no-brainer – it is poor revenue management if either people are scrambling for tickets or if there are empty seats. The problem here has been the way the price increase has been handled and communicated to the fans, and also what the club is optimising for.

At the outset, it must be understood that from a pure watching point of view, being in a stadium is inferior to being in front of a television. In the latter case, you not only have the best view of the action at all points in time, but also replays of important events and (occasionally) expert commentary to help you understand the game. From this point of view, the reason people want to watch a game at the ground is for reasons other than just watching – to put it simply, they go for “the experience”.

Now the thing with stadium experience is that it is a function of the other people at the stadium. In other words, it displays network effects – your experience at the stadium is a function of who else is in the stadium along with you.

This can be complex to model – for this could involve modelling every possible interaction between every pair of spectators at the ground. For example, if your sworn nemesis is at the ground a few seats away from you, you are unlikely to enjoy the game much.

However, given the rather large number of spectators, these individual interactions can be ignored, and only aggregate interactions considered. In other words, we can look at the interaction term between each spectator (who wants to watch the game at the ground) and the “rest of the crowd” (we assume idiosyncrasies like your sworn enemy’s presence as getting averaged out).

Now we have different ways in which a particular spectator can influence the rest of the crowd – in the most trivial case, he just quietly takes his seat, watches the game and leaves without uttering a word, in which case he adds zero value. In another case, he could be a hooligan and be a pain to everyone around him, adding negative value. A third spectator could be a possible cheerleader getting people around him to contribute positively, organising Mexican waves and generally keeping everyone entertained. There can be several other such categories.

The question is what the stadium is aiming to optimise for – the trivial case would be to optimise for revenue from a particular game, but that might come at the cost of stadium “atmosphere”. Stadium atmosphere is important not only to galvanise the team but also to enthuse spectators and get them to want to come for the next game, too. These two objectives (revenue and atmosphere) are never perfectly correlated (in fact their correlation might be negative), and the challenge for the club is to price in a way that the chosen linear combination of these objectives is maximised.

Fundamental principles of pricing in two-sided markets (here it’s a multisided market) say that the price to be charged to a participant should be a negative function of the value he adds to the rest of the event (to the “rest of the crowd” in this case).

A spectator who adds value to the crowd by this metric should be given a discount, while one who subtracts value (by either being a hooligan or a prude) should be charged a premium. The challenge here is that it may not be possible to discriminate at the spectator level – other proxies might have to be used for price discrimination.

One way to do this could be to model the value added by a spectator class as a function of the historic revenues from that class – with some clever modelling it might be possible to come up with credible values for this one, and then taking this value into account while adjusting the prices.

Coming back to Liverpool, the problem seems to be that the ticket price increase (no doubt given by an intention to further maximise revenue takings) has badly hit fans who were otherwise adding positive value to the stadium atmosphere. With such fans potentially getting priced out (in favour of fans who are willing to pay more, but not necessarily adding as much value to the ground), they are trying to send a message to the club that their value (toward the stadium atmosphere) is being underestimated, and thus they need greater discounts. The stadium walkouts are a vehicle to get across this point.

Maximising for per-game revenue need not be sustainable in the long term – an element of “atmosphere” has to be added, too. It seems like the current worthies at Liverpool Football Club have failed to take this into account, resulting in the current unsavoury negotiations.

Now that I’ve moved to Barcelona, Liverpool FC need not look too far – I’ve done a fair bit of work on pricing and revenue management, and on two-sided markets, and can help them understand and analyse the kind of value added by different kinds of spectators, and how this can translate to actual revenues and atmosphere. So go ahead and hire me!

The many spectacles of Jurgen Klopp

I haven’t been a big fan of my last  two pairs of spectacles. The last one, especially, was chosen carefully after a rather long search across several stores. Yet, within a week or two of purchase, I knew it wasn’t a great choice. Somehow it didn’t look as good on me as I imagined it would. And it’s been hardly four months since I bought it, but I’m already looking for a new pair.

While there are several people whose spectacle frames I’ve much admired, no one comes close to new Liverpool F.C. manager Jurgen Klopp. Not realising that he has several pairs of spectacles, I’ve tweeted on many occasions that I want “Jurgen Klopp spectacle frames”. And then somehow forgotten it when at the optician’s.

With Klopp scheduled to be unveiled as the new Liverpool F.C. manager today (he signed his contract yesterday), the Guardian has put out a nice graphic called “the many faces of Jurgen Klopp”. As far as I’m concerned, though, I don’t care about the faces at all. All I care about are the spectacles! Each one better than the other.

So I present to you, “the many spectacles of Jurgen Klopp”. Watch off!

And while at it, tell me where I can procure such spectacle frames – most stores in Bangalore don’t stock good big matte-finished frames. And don’t tell me LensKart or some such online seller – buying a pair of spectacles is like buying a pair of shoes – you need to feel them, try them on and feel comfortable in them before buying.

What did Brendan in? Priors? The schedule? Or the cups?

So Brendan Rodgers has been sacked as Liverpool manager, after what seems like an indifferent start to the season. The club is in tenth position with 12 points after 8 games, with commentators noting that “at the same stage last season” the club had 13 points from 8 games.

Yet, the notion of “same stage last season” is wrong, as I’d explained in this post I’d written two years back (during Liverpool’s last title chase), since the fixture list changes year on year. As I’ve explained in that post, a better way to compare a club’s performance is to compare its performance this season to corresponding fixtures from last season.

Looking at this season from such a lens (and ignoring games against promoted teams Bournemouth and Norwich), this is what Liverpool’s season so far looks like:

Fixture This season Last season Difference
Stoke away Win Loss +3
Arsenal away Draw Loss +1
West Ham home Loss Win -3
Manchester United Away Loss Loss 0
Aston Villa home Win Loss +3
Everton away Draw Draw 0

In other words, compared to similar fixtures last season, Liverpool is on a +4 (winning two games and drawing one among last season’s losses, and losing one of last season’s wins). In fact, if we look at the fixture schedule, apart from the games against promoted sides (which Liverpool didn’t do wonderfully in, scraping through with an offside goal against Bournemouth and drawing with Norwich), Liverpool have had a pretty tough start to the season in terms of fixtures.

So the question is what led to Brendan Rodgers’ dismissal last night? Surely it can’t be the draw at Everton, for that has become a “standard result” of late? Maybe the fact that Liverpool didn’t win allowed the management to make the announcement last evening, but surely the decision had been made earlier?

The first possibility is that the priors had been stacked against Rodgers. Considering the indifferent performance last season in both the league (except for one brilliant spell) and the cups, and the sacking of Rodgers’ assistants, it’s likely that the benefit of the doubt before the season began was against Rodgers, and only a spectacular performance could have turned it around.

The other possibility is indifferent performances in the cups, with 1-1 home draws against FC Sion and Carlisle United being the absolute low points, in fixtures that one would have expected Liverpool to win easily (albeit with weakened sides). While Liverpool is yet to exit any cup, indifferent performances so far meant that there hasn’t been much improvement in the squad since last season.

Leaving aside a “bad prior” at the beginning of the season and cup performances (no pun intended), there’s no other reason to sack Rodgers. As my analysis above shows, his performance in the league hasn’t been particularly bad in terms of results, with only the defeat to West Ham and possibly the draw to Norwich being bad. If Fenway Sports Group (the owners of Liverpool FC) have indeed sacked Rodgers on his league performance, it simply means that they don’t fully get the “Moneyball” philosophy that they supposedly follow, and could do with some quant consulting.

And if they’re reading this, they should know who to approach for such consulting services!

Rodgers and the Ranatunga Principle

It was a wonderful display of the “Ranatunga Principle” by Brendan Rodgers last night, when he fielded what was effectively a second string Liverpool team at Real Madrid. That they lost only 1-0 shows that it wasn’t that bad a ploy, especially given the more important features coming up ahead.

Firstly, Liverpool have not given up on the Champions League. They have simply prioritised. The group they are is a rather weird one – where one team is significantly superior to the others which are approximately at the same level. It is not inconceivable at all that Real Madrid will win all their six games and get 18 points.

Before the game at Anfield two weeks back the degree of Real Madrid’s superiority over Liverpool wasn’t yet fully established and Rodgers smelt the chances of handing out an upset at home and fielded his strongest team. It backfired spectacularly as Real Madrid hammered Liverpool. The more important result of the night, though, was the unfancied but promising Ludogorets beating Basel at home. It was that result that allowed Rodgers to do what he did yesterday.

Real Madrid’s dominance means that Liverpool, Basel and Ludogorets are effectively playing a 3-team mini league the winner of which will go through to the knockouts (of course the extents of their respective thrashings by Real Madrid will matter if it comes down to goal difference). So far, in this mini group, all games have gone to the “home team”.

Liverpool’s last two games of the season see them take on Basel at home and Ludogorets away, and if they win both of them, they are through to the knockouts. Even if Liverpool had come away with a point in last night’s game, this equation would not have changed significantly (three points last night would have helped but the game at Anfield showed how impossible that was).

Liverpool have had a rather busy fixture list in the last 3 weeks. In the space of three weeks they’ve had to play QPR, Real Madrid, Hull, Swansea, Newcastle, Real Madrid and Chelsea – not an easy fixture list at all, and Liverpool’s poor form in the league has made them take even the Capital One Cup seriously, meaning not too many players could be rotated for the game against Swansea. In the loss to Newcastle on Saturday, the fatigue was evident as Liverpool’s attackers were all anonymous. A rest day was thus in order.

This, combined with the weird nature of the Champions League group that Liverpool are in meant that last night’s game was the “least important” for Liverpool in the current run of fixtures, which permitted them to rest key players and give a run out to the perennial subs. And on the evidence of the 1-0 defeat, it seems it didn’t go too badly. Now if only Liverpool can make use of this rest and beat Chelsea on the weekend!

Postscript

Gerrard came on around three-quarters into last night’s game. I have come to believe that is his best position for the team now. Come on as an “impact substitute” in the second half and play in the “old Gerrard role”.

The Steven Davis Role

The first encounter between Liverpool and Southampton in the 2013-14 English Premier League season happened at Anfield in September, and Southampton won 1-0 with a Dejan Lovren goal from a set piece. So when the two sides met again at St. Mary’s in the latter half of the season, with Liverpool chasing the title, it was known that it would be a tough game for Liverpool.

Southampton dominated the first half, playing a front four of Steven Davis, Adam Lallana, Jay Rodrigues and Rickie Lambert. However, it was Liverpool who scored in that half, and led 1-0 at the break. Here is a picture I found on twitter that was uploaded at half time:

Southampton manager Mauricio Pochettino decided to change things for the second half. He took off his most unspectacular forward player Steven Davis and replaced him with Gaston Ramirez, the promising Uruguayan. Soon, Southampton unravelled and Liverpool completely dominated the second half as they won 3-0.

Now, there is no doubt that Ramirez is more talented than Davis and is definitely a better player in general. However, in the context of the rest of Southampton’s team, Ramirez’s introduction proved to be a disaster and there was little cohesion in their attacking play from the time he came on. Southampton became a disjointed team and went out of the game.

This has led me to define what I have come to call the “Steven Davis role”. It is basically a player who is not individually the best, but provides some kind of a glue that holds the team together. The player’s key skill, rather than looking at it from traditional axes such as passing or shooting or tackling or intercepting, is to change position, and to make sure that the team holds its shape at all times. It is to make sure that any players who are out of position are covered for, and that the attack retains its shape and focus.

Now, it must be remembered that last season Southampton’s attacking play was primarily based on strong movement and interplay between their front four. They had nominal positions defined, but they hardly stuck to those as they moved around in attack. Thus, Lambert who would start upfront would sometimes appear on the wing, with the nominal “number ten” Lallana going forward, for example.

And key to this system was Davis, who wasn’t particularly talented, but who would move in a way that would balance the attack. If the other three would move left to attack, he would take up a position slightly to the right – not too far away from the attack but providing a kind of counterbalance. He never led attacks himself, but he was always available to support the others’ attacks. And this is what made Southampton dangerous.

Once Davis had gone off, Southampton had no one to play this role. The kind of interplay they had in the first half disappeared. And their attacks became toothless and each attack had only one dimension which was easy to cover even for Liverpool’s normally shaky defence, as they kept a clean sheet.

It was a similar case I saw last night at the Camp Nou, with Barcelona’s Pedro Rodriguez playing in a “Steven Davis” role. Messi started in the middle and Neymar wide on the left. Pedro nominally started on the right. But soon it became clear that he was a kind of a “wide support striker” – his job was to appear in positions that complemented the rest of the attack rather than being in positions where he led the attack (though he did lead one glorious counterattack where he hit the post). It was like a kind of balance that he offered the team, and ensured their attacks had coherence (of course this being Barcelona they had Iniesta and Rakitic just behind to offer more “focal points”).

Last night was the last game of Luis Suarez’s ban, and it will be interesting what Barcelona do with him when he gets back this weekend. The instinct will be to remove Pedro in his favour, but it is not clear if an attack of Messi-Neymar-Suarez will be able to offer the same kind of coherence as an attack of Messi-Neymar-Pedro. That said, Suarez is an extremely intelligent player and showed in his Liverpool days that he is capable of being a “fighter”, so he might as well be played. But that will mean that Neymar will have to occasionally play the Davis/Pedro role, and it is not clear if he is capable of doing that.

We are in for interesting times.

The post has so far focussed on football but it is evident that his kind of a role is necessary in other team situations, including corporate teamwork, also. Sometimes you need that one guy who need not be individually spectacular, but is versatile and mobile enough that he can do several things, fill in for different people and make sure that any team he is part of will be “complete”. And in the absence of one such guy, the team can lose coherence and fail in its task.