Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Red Leicester

Relativity is a funny thing.

When Charlton were relegated in 2007, the opening home game of the Championship season versus Scunthorpe felt like a nasty taste of cold turkey.

Now that we are back at that level via a promotion, the opening home game had a tangible sense of ‘occasion’ even despite a mildly disappointing crowd of 16,658.

By comparison our first midweek home game of the aforementioned 2007/8 season (versus Norwich) attracted a crowd of over 21,000, suggesting several thousand fans have sadly been lost during the course of the last few tumultuous years.

It’s a shame that more weren't there to see it because on last night’s evidence, there will be plenty of entertainment on show and whilst Charlton will lack the quality of some of the division’s better sides, they will more than match them for heart. 

There was no doubting the quality of Charlton’s two first-half finishes though, both devastating yet from what were barely half chances.

Leicester looked shell-shocked and two half-time substitutions signalled intent, and indeed the degree to which Andy King subsequently bossed the midfield (more about that later) suggests Nigel Pearson’s team selection may have been wrong to begin with.

It was no surprise meanwhile that Jermaine Beckford did not appear for the second half after a display which bordered on the casual – a fairlytale career which seemed set to take him from non-League to Premiership stardom stalled badly once he reached the highest level, and he now barely looks Championship quality on this evidence.

The second half was one-way traffic with Charlton not carving out a single opening, whilst the Foxes created four gilt-edged chances, yet only converting one.  

Had Jamie Vardy scored with a late point-blank header, few Charlton fans could have complained a draw wasn’t a fair result but given the cruel way points were lost at Birmingham, perhaps we deserved some good fortune.

The degree to which the Charlton midfield went awol in the second half must be a cause for concern however, especially with little in the way of more compelling alternatives in the squad. 

Bradley Pritchard provided an energetic link between defence and attack (notably during the build-up to the opening goal), but I question whether he has the quality on the ball to make a real impact at this level – then again the same could be said of Scott Wagstaff.

The less said about the contributions of Stephens, and particularly Hollands and Jackson the better – the latter two would look slow next to a stationary vehicle, but perhaps in League One this was less of a factor.  Worryingly Lawrie Wilson also looked off the pace during his late cameo.

With Kermogant and now Ricardo Fuller providing obvious outlets for a ball that bypasses the midfield entirely, perhaps we can succeed merely by being a little direct and maintaining a high tempo, but to the extent we can do some business in the final days of the window, we are desperate for some midfield back-up.

Without it I sense a midtable season, which (financial implications notwithstanding) would suit most of us just fine.

Here are my player ratings:

Hamer 8 – safe handling when called upon although his defence left him exposed at times

Solly 6 – rarely able to bomb forward, but dependable when required defensively

Wiggins 7 – great quality on the ball though went missing for Dyer’s golden second half chance

Cort 6 – at nearly 33 years old, he is slow on the turn (notably in the first half) but terrific in the air and reads the game well

Morrison 7 – looked more comfortable than his defensive partner; a vital player

Jackson 4 – I’ve never been his biggest fan, and for once at least I had some justification – virtually anonymous

Stephens 5 – great early promise at the start of last season has not been fulfilled – game went on around him in the second half

Hollands 4 – not good enough at this level I’m afraid

Pritchard 7 – as mentioned, in the team for his running (just don’t expect any moments of genius)

Kermogant 6 – won his fair share of headers and scored a great goal, but he lacks mobility to get behind defences facing goal

Wright-Phillips 8 – looked the player we all hope he could be for us this season; hard-working, pacy and devastating when called upon

Wilson, Cook, Kerkar – late substitutes

Friday, August 17, 2012

Seasons Greetings

London 2012 was a terrific spectacle (albeit one I only experienced on TV), but whilst it had its memorable moments it also reminded me that football really is a uniquely attractive spectator sport (not the Olympic sort admittedly which was garbage).

Football’s fast pace, continuous action, crowd involvement, variability and low-scoring nature all compare highly favourably with say handball (too high-scoring), hockey (too disjointed) or volleyball (lacking variety).

I completely share the sentiments that many players could learn something from the humility exhibited by our Olympic winners, but it would only be fair to acknowledge that much of what passes for typical footballer arrogance or aloofness may simply be a pre-requisite given the toxic atmosphere that many must perform in (particularly away from home).

Chelsea or West Ham away on a wet Tuesday night is no place for shrinking violets.

Compare this to the generally supportive atmosphere at any given swimming, rowing or cycling event and it is immediately clear that any direct comparision is unfair.

Anyhow, we probably won’t experience another home Olympics games in our lifetimes so let’s give our heroes their dues but refocus back on the far more important matter of the new football season.

I will hopefully be able to provide more colour on the strange goings-on at Charlton this summer in due course, but one would have to be an eternal optimist or at least an extraordinarily strong believer in the type of ‘Moneyball’ theory I’ve espoused on this blog, to conclude that four signings (three of them free agents) was all that the squad needs to be competitive in the Championship.

I’m particularly concerned about the Charlton midfield which often struggled to control matches even last season, and which has a decidedly laboured feel to it.

More generally the new 4-year parachute payments awarded to relegated clubs puts the likes of the Addicks at a meaningful disadvantage, because as is already clear the likes of Blackburn, Bolton and Wolves can afford to ‘gamble’ for at least a season (if not two) before the reality they need to realign their cost base with non-Premiership revenues sets in.

It is perhaps no coincidence that the three relegated clubs from 2010/11 (West Ham, Blackpool, and Birmingham) all managed a top six finish last season – certainly no Charlton-esque post-relegation collapse here, and I expect the aforementioned trio of new Championship arrivals to perform well too.

Meanwhile we must also compete with several clubs with strong fan bases and now wealthy foreign owners, each with their hearts set seemingly on a rapid promotion (eg. Leicester, Hull, Forest, Cardiff).

Even the less well-supported likes of Watford have new owners and in their specific case, a unique opportunity to draw upon some raw talents across their European portfolio of clubs.

Now of course as Portsmouth have proved, new owners can be catastrophic in the medium to long-term but they are rarely so in the near-term (Blackburn perhaps being a rare exception) and Charlton must compete in the here and now, and we appear to be starting the season from the back of the grid as it were.

Whereas League One was chock full of frankly tiny clubs trying to compete with us despite a fraction of our resources, now we find ourselves in the same boat – we might even recognise some names on the opposition teamsheet too.

On a related topic, last season I explained a theory I use to assess the total points ‘spreads’ which the likes of Sporting Index offer, and which served me well last season.

The three outstanding bets I identified last season (in League One) were to SELL Rochdale at 62 (actual: 38), BUY Notts County at 58 (actual: 73) and SELL Brentford at 68 (actual: 67).

On an equal-weighted basis, these would have earned profits of 40 times the unit bet per point, which not surprisingly gave me the impetus to conduct the same assessment again.

The first part of the process seeks to predict how many points each club would generate ‘on average’ if the season was played out say 100 times (based on current information on squads, managers, finances etc.).

This essentially sets out a prediction of a ‘typical’ league table at the end of the season. Hence what follows is my current expectation for this season’s Championship – the actual spreads offered by Sporting Index are listed to the right.

One might narrow down the possibilities by starting with a simple rule to buy any spreads where the average expectation is at least two points higher than the spread, and sell any spreads where the average expectation is at least two points lower.

The results of that simple rule are shown above below and it already rules out betting on exactly half of the clubs because in short, if you can barely be confident in being ‘right on average’ then it is unlikely to serve as the foundation of a profitable strategy:

Leicester 82 70.5-72.5 BUY
Bolton 82 73-75 BUY
Blackburn 75 67.5-69.5 BUY
Wolves 74 71.5-73.5 NO BET
Hull 72 63.5-65.5 BUY
Leeds 72 67-69 BUY
Cardiff 70 69.5-71.5 NO BET
Middlesbrough 68 64.5-66.5 NO BET
Notts Forest 65 63-65 NO BET
Birmingham 65 69-71 SELL
Blackpool 65 66.5-68.5 NO BET
Ipswich 63 62-64 NO BET
Burnley 63 59.5-61.5 NO BET
Derby 62 58-60 BUY
Brighton 62 64-66 SELL
Sheffield Wednesday 60 62.5-64.5 SELL
Huddersfield 60 57.5-59.5 NO BET
Watford 60 62-64 SELL
Charlton 56 58-60 SELL
Crystal Palace 54 53.5-55.5 NO BET
Bristol City 54 50.5-52.5 NO BET
Millwall53 54.5-56.5 NO BET
Barnsley 52 46-48 BUY
Peterborough 50 48-50 NO BET

However the second part of the process is equally important, if not more so and seeks to include an assessment of the likely range of outcomes – an assessment of the ‘volatility’ of those average points totals if you like.

Not only is it important to be right more often than you’re wrong (what the first part above seeks to ensure), but also to make your wins bigger than your losses ie. ensure the likely distribution of outcomes is skewed in your favour.

It is reasonable in my view to assume for example that clubs with uncertain financial situations (eg. Charlton) or rather experimental business models (eg. Watford, Blackburn), might have a wider range of possible points totals than more stable clubs like Derby or Brighton.

I use a ‘95% confidence’ range (ie. one within which I would expect the club’s points totals to be in 19 out of 20 seasons) – clearly on a 100% confidence basis the range would have to be from zero to 138 points which isn’t very useful, and I’m willing to take the risk that I’m wrong 5% of the time (especially given I may be wrong in a profitable direction!).

The following would be my assessment of the range of outcomes of the twelve remaining clubs on a 95% confidence basis, again with the actual spreads shown alongside (and the ‘average expectation’ from above in brackets).

Here my additional rule is that the ‘upside/downside’ risk has to be at least 2:1 in my favour.

Leicester (82) 70-95 70.5-72.5 BUY
Bolton (82) 70-90 73-75 BUY
Blackburn (75) 66-95 67.5-69.5 BUY
Hull (72) 62-85 63.5-65.5 BUY
Leeds (72) 65-88 67-69 BUY
Birmingham (65) 58-76 69-71 NO BET
Derby (62) 50-70 58-60 NO BET
Brighton (62) 54-72 64-66 NO BET
Sheffield Wednesday (60) 50-68 62.5-64.5 SELL
Watford (60) 48-72 62-64 NO BET
Charlton (56) 39-70 58-60 NO BET
Barnsley (52) 36-58 46-48 NO BET

For example in the case of Bolton, I can buy the spread at 75 points and I additionally expect that in 19 out of 20 seasons, I could win as much as 15 times my stake (the upper end of my range ie. 90 less my bet entry of 75) whilst only risking 5 times my stake (my bet entry of 75 less the lower end of my range).

Thus the upside/downside is actually 3:1 in this case, and thus sufficient to warrant taking a position.

This ‘profitability hurdle’ meanwhile rules out a bet on Birmingham, Derby, Brighton, Watford, Charlton and Barnsley.

Interestingly given our opening home game, the most extreme example of an attractive bet is ‘buying’ Leicester at 72.5 – this spread is almost ten points inside my ‘base’ expectation of 82 on average, and moreover offers an upside/downside ratio of 9:1.

It is often useful to try to rationalise what appears to be an extraordinarily appealing opportunity just in case you've missed something, so here goes: Leicester started 2011/12 as pre-season favourites on the basis of their strong squad, but the bookies did not discount of the ‘Sven factor’.

With the more competent Nigel Pearson at the helm, with a full summer to prepare his squad (whilst also adding to it), and with wealthy owners likely willing to use the January window to make a real ‘push for promotion’ (if competing) then I’m comfortable that this bet also passes what one might call the ‘smell test’.

Indeed it makes sense to weight the size of each bet according to the degree to which they stand out on the above metrics, so my Championship ‘investments’ will be as follows:

BUY: Leicester (high conviction), Bolton (low conviction), Blackburn (medium conviction), Hull (medium conviction), Leeds (low conviction)

SELL: Sheffield Weds (low conviction)

I’m slightly nervous that the analysis is throwing out a disproportionate amount of ‘buy’ recommendations, but the same analysis across the Premiership and League One threw out more ‘sell’ recommendations than ‘buy’ so across the divisions it is about even suggesting no inherent bias either way.

For those interested, the most attractive bet across all three divisions was to ‘sell’ Swindon at 73.5.

Before anyone attempts to superimpose their own forecasts on my model, I should finish with a small disclaimer: Please ensure you understand the risks with sports spread betting as it involves a high level of risk and you can lose more than your original stake.

Up the Addicks!

Friday, August 10, 2012

Life on Mars?

Charlton Athletic have refused to comment on rumours that Tony Jimenez has sneaked on board NASA's Curiosity rover and travelled to Mars.

Newly released grainy images appear to show the Addicks supremo piloting the space vehicle shortly after it landed on Monday.

Having failed this summer to persuade enough players to both sign on a free transfer and play for nothing, Jimenez is now thought to be exploring interplanetary talent.

"Tony has always been a radical thinker when it comes to scouting," admitted a club insider who didn't wish to be named, "...he had become increasingly frustrated last season that Jeff Vetere's contacts were solely Earth-based."

With several midweek home games scheduled in 2012/13, Jimenez is also thought to be attracted to players who have proved they can perform with no atmosphere.

However tricky transfer negotiations may rest on the willingness of the likes of Andy Hughes or Paul Hayes to be a makeweight in a swap deal.

"It was hard enough persuading Hayes to move to Wycombe," he added.