Theory of Relativity
"I didn’t have a clue about the winner. I’ve not seen him all year and I didn’t know anything about him or what he was capable of." (Mo Farah, Aug 2011)
Some quotes from Chris Powell in the News Shopper piqued my interest this week.
In particular, I have to take issue with his comment that, “I see the Hillsborough fixture as just another game in our season.”
Now to be fair to Powell, he may be playing some form of mind games, keeping his team relaxed and not lifting energy-sapping nerves unnecessarily.
However if he genuinely means it, then I think he is very much mistaken. The same obviously applies to the upcoming Sheffield United fixture too.
I will term what I will discuss as New York Addick’s, “Theory of Relativity”.
At the start of the season, especially in a relatively hard-to-predict division like League One, the opening game is by definition 100% driven by ‘absolute factors’.
In short, not only does a team not know with great confidence whether it will be competing at say the top, middle or bottom of the table, but it also doesn’t know which of its fellow teams will be competing there either!
For example, whilst plenty of observers might have ‘fancied’ say Huddersfield or Charlton to do well ex ante based on the usual factors, likewise one could have made a similar case for the likes of Preston or Scunthorpe, neither of whom are competing.
Thus on opening day and indeed for the first several games, the target is purely an absolute one. Get as many points as possible, then see where you are.
At the other extreme, when the 46th game of the season kicks off in May, for most of those teams still with something to play for, the target is purely a relative one.
In short during that final game, judging how your team is doing cannot be assessed solely on the basis of the scoreline of its own match.
Defeat may be good enough if other results are going your way, and likewise victory may not be enough.
By definition therefore somewhere between these two extremes of the 1st and 46th fixture of the season, a ‘tipping point’ must be reached where the importance of the absolute number of points achieved becomes superseded by the importance of the number of points relative to rivals.
A good estimate for the fixture at which this tipping point is reached might well be the halfway point of the season, in our case the start of the Brentford game two Saturdays ago, our most recent League game.
However after Charlton had thumped Preston 5-2 on Bonfire Night, the League One table already had a familiar look to it:
Charlton P17 40
Huddersfield P17 35
Sheff Weds P17 33
MK Dons P17 30
Sheff Utd P17 29
Thus with the acknowledged benefit of some hindsight, the 'tipping point' had probably already been reached after just 17 games, given the constituents of the top five.
On an absolute basis since then, most Charlton fans would probably conclude our form has been just fine: 14 points from 7 games.....promotion form surely?
However, whilst after 17 games the combined points gap of the four chasing teams behind us was 33, it is now only 24 (admittedly two have played one game more).
So in an absolute sense we have been doing great, but in a relative sense (and extrapolating), it would be a very close run thing whether we would even keep our noses ahead at this rate especially if we treat the games directly against the quartet as 'just another game'.
In order to explain better my theory, imagine say a 10,000m athletics race in which a pack of five runners has pulled clear of the field.
At the start of the race, a runner (let’s call him Mo) would no doubt have had a time target in mind which if achieved, would likely win him a gold medal (this is the ‘absolute’ target).
Indeed as the first few laps are completed, if a healthy pace has been set then this absolute target is important because the runner will know few will be able to stay in contention at this rate for 25 laps.
However as laggards do indeed begin to drop away and just five runners remain in contention, suddenly Mo’s original absolute target becomes virtually obsolete.
Even if the pace were to drop by a couple of seconds per lap, the remaining runners are too slow and too far back to catch up anyhow.
Now it’s only about the tactics that the other four competitors adopt – the race will now be won or lost purely on ‘relative’ factors.
If one of the runners ‘kicks for home’ then Mo can’t just look at his watch and determine that he remains on course for his original absolute target. He needs to kick too.
Mo may end up winning glory with a time worse than his original ‘absolute target’, or finish 5th with a better time.
Returning to football, the ‘absolute target’ in our case is presumably a points total which usually wins promotion.
Whilst we can make an educated guess about how many points will be required (by extrapolating from current points, or looking at previous seasons), it remains a highly uncertain data point.
However the ‘relative target’ is simply actual automatic promotion, which can be defined in very simple and stark terms:
To finish the season behind no more than one other club
Alternatively, given the form of the top five and the gap that exists behind them, I think realistically this target can simplified even further:
To finish the season ahead of three or more of the current top five
Whilst this ignores the prospect of say a Carlisle or Stevenage making a run for promotion, I think my athletics analogy above is useful here - under almost all realistic scenarios, they are already too far behind.
When assessing the importance of the upcoming two games, allow me for simplification and for the timebeing (see below) to assume all other games involving the chasing quartet are postponed.
If Charlton win both games, the table would look like this on 21st Jan:
Charlton P26 60
Sheff Utd P26 50
Sheff Weds P25 49
Huddersfield P25 47
MK Dons P24 46
At that point, we are not just looking good....we are virtually home and dry, even with three of the other sides having games in hand.
The 63% probability of automatic promotion discussed in my last post has probably become 85%.
Conversely, let's consider if we lose the next two games.
At this point I should also mention that the 'postponed games' alluded to above will actually (weather permitting!) be as follows:
Sheff Utd: Bury (A)
Sheff Weds: Hartlepool (H)
Huddersfield: Oldham (H), Brentford (H)
MK Dons: Carlisle (H), Notts C (A)
Imagine a nightmare scenario (but hardly an unlikely one) then in which all of the above games are won by a top five club, and we lose the two Sheffield games above.
Then the League table looks like this on Jan 21st:
Sheff Utd P27 56
Sheff Weds P26 55
Charlton P26 54
Huddersfield P27 53
MK Dons P26 52
At this point after factoring in the devastating impact on confidence, I could make a serious case that we would be fifth favourites for promotion in just nine days' time!
My Theory of Relativity is not a pessimistic one, far from it.
I am not for one moment suggesting we are not more than capable of taking apart both of the Sheffield sides.
But crucially it is vital to understand that it is only in these games that we can directly impact the form of our rivals; they really are 'six pointers'.
Have two in a row, and you effectively have twelve points at stake in just three hours of football.
It would be akin to our athlete Mo having the ability to trip up two of his five rivals on the back straight!
My Theory of Relativity thus simply states that when form has become more relative than absolute (ie. when the tipping point has been passed), believing that fixtures against your direct rivals are 'just another game' is a gross mistake.
Which given Chris Powell is an intelligent man, is why I suspect he doesn't believe it at all.