There’s Something About Sir Alex
It’s fair to say that Manchester United have missed Sir Alex Ferguson as manager since his retirement. A 7го place under Moyes, a 4го in Van Gaal’s first season and now a likely 5го (with options of 4го, in fairness, but also 6го or 7го if Liverpool and West Ham continue well) have all come after never dropping out of the top 3 under the Scot.
This is despite it being widely acknowledged that there were some quite serious problems with the United sides of Fergie’s last few seasons. Some of this has come with hindsight, the current evidently mediocre squad having its roots in the transfer and planning failings of the past regime. But how could Ferguson still bring success despite some less than quality signings and general play when his successors haven’t been able to?
Could it be some good fortune? Looking at a team’s conversion rates (what percentage of their shots they score, or concede) can sometimes give an indicator. Generally, better teams will naturally have conversion rates in their favour. Their shots that they take will be from slightly better positions, and the shots they concede will be from slightly worse positions. But often conversion rates will gravitate to around similar levels.
In the Premier League the average is just under 10%. A couple of percentage points either side of this isn’t necessarily anything notable. However, if you look at the difference between the two, the conversion difference, then you can get a better picture.
From looking at the Premier League seasons from 2009-10 to 2014-15, a conversion difference of a +2 to +4% isn’t unusual but happens more often for top 4 teams, and relegation teams generally have the minus equivalent. Only a few teams per season tend to have conversion differences outside that range of -4% to +4%, and instances of very high or low differences occurring season after season are even rarer.
In the data available though, stretching back to 2009-10, Sir Alex Ferguson managed it every season, and since his departure the conversion differences have dropped off.
It’s possible that Sir Alex is a footballing god made flesh, imbued with magical powers to give his teams good fortune. It’s also possible that his teams were just quite good и quite lucky, to varying degrees, while in his absence the teams have been both less good and less lucky.
The combination of good and lucky is likely when you split the differences into their two parts. In 09-10 and 11-12, the differences were driven by very low conversion against numbers, in fact two of the four lowest in the entire sample for the Premier League. 2010-11 can almost be counted as a normal year. 2012-13 big difference came from the attacking side, with over 15% of their shots turning into goals, the second highest conversion rate for the Premier League (narrowly behind 13-14 Liverpool).
In the two full seasons since Sir Alex left, their conversion rate for has been a little over 12%, about what it was in 2009-10 and 2010-11, but without the low conversion against numbers – between 9-10% in the last two seasons against 6.8% in 09-10 and 8.1% in 10-11.
It’s kind of impossible to say how much a team is lucky or not, but given that the latter years of Ferguson’s United weren’t exactly setting the world alight, those conversion rates might just support the theory that maybe they were a little bit.
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