Monday, January 11, 2010

Winter Break Review: Ligue 1

In previous writings I have mentioned that the French Ligue 1 is very tight with a lot of good teams. Bordeaux have now separated themselves and are 9 clear at the top. I think that margin is larger than it should be, but that's a big lead at this stage. After that though there isn't much to separate teams and the top 15 are all pretty strong.

Most Impressive

Perhaps I should rename this section "Let Me Tell You about the Team at the Top of the Table" since I'm going with Bordeaux. While Sevilla are the only club I support, I will admit to being a bit partial to Bordeaux as they are my favorite side to watch outside of the Spanish League. The clock is always ticking for French clubs in that situation, but they have a lot of quality throughout the side. While they don't get the attention of Gourcuff and Chamakh, the defense has been excellent all season. They lead the Ligue 1 with only 12 goals conceded and they were very impressive in the Champions League group stage, having only conceded two goals in 6 matches - including 2 each against Juventus and Bayern Munich.

I will say that Bordeaux seem to be running above expectation. Teams with their goal differential have about 39 points on average, so they have about 4 points more than expectation. Again, in studying goal differential I have found little to no evidence that this is anything other than luck so they've been fortunate there. More surprising to me is that my stats model has them only third best behind Lille and Marseille. The model puts heavy weight on shots and shots on target. Bordeaux are only fourth best in shot differential and 3rd best when it comes to shots on target. Since they have the best goal differential in the Ligue, it's clear they've excelled in front of goal at one or both ends of the pitch. Looking at the numbers they've been good at converting chances into goals, 6th best in the league, and fantastic defensively and in goal. They have the league best shooting percentage against having allowed a goal on less than 20% of their opponents' shots. They have conceded 5 or 6 goals fewer than they would have if they had allowed their opponents a league-average shooting percentage. While randomness or luck play a role I think they owe a good portion of that to Cédric Carrasso. Last season with Rame in goal Bordeaux were 11th at shooting percentage against, allowing a goal on about 26.5% of their opponents' shots. That is with largely the same set of defensive players. Carrasso had a similar record at Toulouse, though they have kept it up this season having played 4 different keepers. So it seems that Bordeaux have probably gotten a bit lucky to only concede 12 but they've gotten fantastic play from Carrasso.

Honorable mention for most impressive club goes to Montpellier. They, too, are fortunate to be where they are but it's impressive that they appear to be one of the best 5 or 6 clubs in the top flight a season after getting promoted from the Ligue 2.

Most Disappointing

I don't think there really is one here. It seems Lyon aren't as good as they have been, but halfway through the season they are three points out of the Champions League so it's far too early to call them a disappointment. I thought Marseille would compete for the league and they're 11 points out with a match in hand so I guess they're the closest. More on them in a bit.

Luck and/or Efficiency

The first thing I look at to measure luck is goal differential. I've written a lot about goal differential and luck before, the main point is that there is a strong link between goal differential and points and it seems that the differences are most, if not all, luck. The three clubs that are more fortunate in this area are Montpellier, roughly 5 points over expectation, Sochaux, 4 to 5 points, and Bordeaux at right around 4 points over expectation. Bordeaux are double winners really since the third unluckiest team when it comes to goal differential and points is Lille who have run about 4 points under expectation. Based on goal differential, Bordeaux would be expected to be between 1 and 2 points ahead of Lille but they are 9 clear. The two teams that have had the worst luck are Paris Saint-Germain, between 5 and 6 points below expectation, and Grenoble at around 4 points below expectation.

Looking at stats, mostly based on shots and shots on target as well as goals, the biggest difference between the model and league table is Toulouse. Toulouse are currently 14th, 15th if you go by points per match, but the model puts them 10th. While I don't think I've seen Toulouse, the data points to a few reasons for this. One is that they have run about 3 points below expectation for a team with their goal differential - they are 11th in goal differential per match. They have also had problems converting on their chances. Toulouse are 16th in the league in percentage of shots on target that are goals. Despite losing their goalkeeper to Bordeaux, they still have conceded few goals for the number of shots on target allowed. They are second there. So Toulouse are sitting near the relegation zone instead of midtable because of below average performance in close matches and some combination of bad luck and bad play in front of goal. This is negated to some degree by good fortune and play defensively and at goalkeeper.

The team near the top with the worst luck according to the stats model seems to be Marseille. The model rates them second, above Bordeaux, but they are well out of the title hunt. OM are best in the league in shot and shot-on-target differential. Despite that they find themselves only third in goal differential, 10 goals behind Bordeaux. They are right around average at converting their shots into goals, but have allowed more goals per shot on target than any team in the league. I found this quite surprising to be honest because it certainly seems like Mandanda is a very good keeper. Last season, Marseille were right around league average in this category. So it seems like they have gotten unlucky, and figure to concede fewer goals in the second half of the season, but I wonder if I've been overrating Mandanda a bit.

Another top club that the model rates higher than their position in the table is PSG. This appears to be fully explained by their subpar performance in close matches, again I think this is mostly due to randomness, leading to few points for a team with their goal differential. Les Parisiens have been pretty good with shots at both ends. They are 8th best at shooting percentage and 4th best at shooting percentage against. This isn't surprising since they have better than average players in attack and defense.

On the fortunate side of things are Auxerre and Montpellier. Like PSG, their place is largely based on differences between goal differential and points. To see how luck can be such a big factor, let's compare these three teams. I think most everyone would agree that PSG are ahead of those other clubs. By coincidence they have all played 12 matches that were decided by one goal or that ended in a draw. In their 12 matches, PSG are 2-5-5 for just 11 points. Auxerre are 5-5-2, 20 points, and Montpellier 7-3-2 for a huge 24 points. Despite being nearly unanimously regarded as the best of the three, PSG have gained 9 points fewer than Auxerre and a barely credible 13 fewer than Montpellier in close matches. There is a lot of variance in football.


Bordeaux will win the league relatively comfortably. Though they probably are running over expectation, they are the best side in the league and have a 9-point lead at the midpoint of the season. I don't expect a surprise.

The top 3 will be Bordeaux, Lille and Marseille. I think these are the best three clubs in the Ligue 1. I think Marseille will jump over Montpellier and there will be a decent gap between the top three and the next tier.

The fight for fourth will come down to the wire. This isn't much of a prediction. Frankly I'm not willing to go out on a limb because I could easily see Montpellier, Auxerre, Lyon, PSG, Lorient or Stade Rennes finishing fourth. Even one of the next set of teams could go on a heater and take it. If there is a repeat of last year in the Coupe de France and one of the top sides don't win it, there will be a war for the Europa League spot and several clubs will be disappointed to be left out. At least this year, France deserve an extra spot as a the best couple clubs that finish out of the Europa League spots would be well above average for that competition.

Le Mans will get relegated and Saint Etienne will stay up. For (almost) every league I'm picking a team in the relegation zone to stay up and a team in the clear at the moment to get relegated. Here I'm going admittedly weak by flipping the 17th and 18th teams. Based fully on looking at stats, it seems that the bottom three teams are the worst in the league with St. Etienne clearly the best of that lot. Grenoble actually look better than Boulogne so I'll make them climbing out of the cellar a mini prediction to make the bottom of the table vaguely interesting. They are 6 points down and have played an extra match so they have some ground to make up. Le Mans seem to be pretty bad as well and are 6 points back of Nice so they got chosen for relegation.

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