There has been a lot of talk about Newcastle's season so far and not much of it has been positive After all, sitting at 16th place after 23 fixtures was not what was expected after last year's stellar, if unrepeatable, 5th placed finish.
Newcastle, in the eyes of some, including this author, were always likely to regress from last year's position. Some elements of last year's excellent run were not likely to be repeated, points gained on the back of unsustainable scoring %'s, the form of Cisse and the opportunity to pick a relatively settled side, also.
I thought Newcastle would finish in 9th place in 2012/13 and said so here in early August:
For a 5th placed finish in 2011/12, Newcastle were a poor possession and shot team who rode on the back of two strikers who, at completely different times in the season, enjoyed such high levels of performance that I feel they must regress next year. If Ba and Cisse regress toward the mean in terms of scoring % and minutes per goal I believe that Newcastle will regress in the EPL also. Goals mean points.
Newcastle are no two man team, though. Excellent individual performances from Krul, Colocinni and Cabaye certainly helped. Newcastle had a sensational season in 2011/12 and I think this year they will regress to having a good season and finish 9th.
This year Cisse is dying in front of goal, Ba and all his talent (and luck) have been sold, and injuries have decimated the squad, 9th may be attainable still.
Normally, we agree that injuries are part of the game, but there are injuries at a football club and then there are injuries at teams like Aston Villa, and to slightly lesser extent--Newcastle.
The blood red line denotes a team's average injury total for each fixture. As we have moved through the season injuries increase. Villa are being mauled by injuries and Newcastle have been badly hurt, Cabaye, Tiote, Taylor, Ben Arfa, these are all important men for Newcastle who have spent extended periods unavailable for selection.
Some see injuries as a convenient excuse to avoid talking about how Newcastle over-achieved last year and hence were thus always likely to regress this year. I agree with the regression theory, as previously stated, but I don't think Newcastle would have slid this far down the table without a heavy injury list, and player unrest.
All of the above is just foreplay for what I really want to look at: Newcastle's fixture list. Specifically a direct comparison between Newcastle's fixture list this season and the fixture's against those same teams last season. Simon Gleave of Infostrada and Chris Collinson of SkySports have taken an idea, originally from Omar Chaudhuri and ran with it. Check their Twitter feeds for more detail on the method.
It's quite simple though: Take Any Newcasle fixture this season and check the result against the result against that identical opponent from last season. Relegated teams last year are replaced with promoted teams.
Newcastle are 19 points down when comparing this years fixtures with last years, and that is the biggest margin in the League. The primary question is: Can anything about Newcastle's opponents form indicate why Newcastle have so many fewer points?
Newcastle's Direct comparison Fixture list.
The higher the number, the easier the fixture. *Spurs' numbers have been entered as their current total from the 23 game mark, otherwise the data for Newcastle's first game of the season would be skewed with 0 valuations.
This chart uses Newcastles' identical 2011/12 and 2012/13 fixture lists, takes the opponents league position at the time of the fixture and converts it into a moving average.
The amazing thing about this is how close the two sets of fixture lists are at the 23rd game mark (not all teams' fixture lists are anywhere near as close). The fixture lists were a little apart (2012/13 being visibly easier) up until game 13, whereupon the two fixture lists track each other well.
Overall, the difference between the opponents average league position at the time of fixture in 2012/13 and 2011/12 is minimal. 2012/13's fixture list sees opponents, on average, placed at 0.43 league places lower than those opponents of 2011/12
There is nothing here that may tell us why Newcastle have 19 points less this year than they did last year, if anything it tells us that 2011/12's fixture list was a set less conducive to accumulating points.
Opponents Points Per game
If we replace the opponents league position for their points per game number, do we see anything different?
Here we see a slight reverse of what we saw when comparing opponents league positions. When using points per game as the opponents benchmark we se that 2012/13 has a slightly harder set of fixtures, but the difference is barely evident.
Overall, the difference between the opponents points per game in 2012/13 and 2011/12 is that the 2012/13 fixture list has seen Newcastle face opponents who were 0.071 ppg stronger than they were in 2011/12.
Neither method tells us anything clear or conclusive. Yes, there are slight differences between the respective fixture lists, but surely we can't claim that those differences are large enough to cause a negative swing of 19 points.
For Newcastle fans the question is where did it all go wrong? Was last season an outlier, a freak. Is this season an outlier of sorts in terms of key, key personnel being injured for sustained periods? Have tactics, low confidence and dips in players morale all created a perfect storm that have led Newcastle to drop to 16th?
One last graph that I feel highlights one of the problems in this direct fixture analysis, and that is how few of the same opponents exhibit similar points per game form from one years fixture to the next years fixture:
Here are the number of games and the points per game difference between the identical fixtures from seperate years:
0.10 ppg = 8 games 0.20ppg = 12 games 0.40 ppg = 15 games 0.75 ppg = 20 games
In short, the fixtures may be against the same opponent, but that opponent rarely exhibits a similar points per game number from one years fixture to the next years identical fixture. Same team name, different team strength at the time of fixture due to fluctuations in form throughout the season, not to mention how certain teams weaken or strengthen in the offseason.
Thanks for reading