Special for the Armenian Weekly
In business, it is customary and good practice to complete a comprehensive year-end assessment of team performance. This usually includes providing high-quality, candid performance and development feedback and working to set “S.M.A.R.T.” goals for the upcoming year (i.e., specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time bound). Once a close look has been taken at results and development over the previous year, overall performance is generally ranked into broad categories such as Distinguished, Commendable, Meets Expectations, and Needs Improvement.
Performers at the high end of the scale get their rewards either on a monetary level or with some sort of professional advancement in their career. Performers at the other end of the spectrum are on the hot seat and quite rightly put under the microscope in terms of finding areas for improvement. Having won just one match in nine attempts in 2014, while also finishing the year languishing in the cellar of Euro 2016 qualifying Group I and slipping from 35 to 79 in the FIFA rankings, one doesn’t need a keen eye or astute management speak to assess Armenia’s results in 2014, although a new category may need to be added at the low end of the scale: perhaps “Below Target,” defined as a team not meeting performance expectations, having displayed some good quality work but achieving inconsistent results.
But is that a fair assessment? Should it be that easy to write off a year’s work as being below target based on results alone? After all, the team went through a managerial change, a change of formation, and countless injuries to key players. The complex game of soccer is loved and celebrated throughout the world, but it is also analyzed and dissected in equal measure by pundit and fan alike. So what other factors can be considered in rating performances beyond results alone? Is there some way to gauge whether a team deserved to win, lose, or draw? Other statistics besides results can help paint a more descriptive picture. Possession, chances made, shots on target, corners, or even fouls can all be interpreted and manipulated to form an opinion and come to some sort of conclusion. Whether that conclusion is right or wrong is another thing. It is after all a game of opinions.
The guys at OPTA, the highly touted sports data company, have an interesting metric known as “Expected Goals.” They look at each shot or opportunity in a match and, using sophisticated modeling, determine the likelihood of that shot or opportunity to result in a goal. The Expected Goals metric is not perfect nor does OPTA’s modeling claim to be. When Expected Goals is calculated on a per-game basis (over samples of ~30 shots) the metric can fall victim to the biases caused by small sample sizes. Sometimes, however, it can be useful in understanding a team’s performance during a particularly good or bad run of form, a stretch that Armenia currently finds itself in.
But what about luck? In the professional game or at any level for that matter, can much stock be put into such a thing? It is often said that good teams make their own luck. I’m not sure I fully buy into that claim. I believe good players and good teams rather than making their own luck, have in fact an innate ability to capitalize and profit from whatever luck comes their way. I believe that to be a skill, and not entirely related to the rub of the green. Having a keen sense of concentration, reaction, balance, and spatial awareness can see great players profit from lucky situations. Average players or the average team who never seem to profit from such situations on a consistent basis are usually left cursing their bad luck. With that said, does Armenia deserve to be rock bottom of Group I?
New York-based OPTA statistician Devin Pleuler, a regular contributor to the Central Winger series on mlssoccer.com, was kind enough to share Armenia’s numbers from their recent three qualifying matches. The results aren’t very surprising, but they do indicate a performance level that is below par. By solely looking at the Expected Goals metric, it could be concluded that Armenia deserved nothing from their away games versus Denmark and Portugal, and somewhat overachieved in Copenhagen by getting on the score sheet at all, when the quality of their chances only resulted in 0.36 Expected Goals. Conversely, Armenia can feel a little unlucky not to secure the three points against Serbia. Even though Serbia out shot Armenia in that match, Armenia’s Expected Goals was much higher, indicating a higher quality of scoring opportunity (namely, the penalty kick and rebound effort from Marcos Pizzelli who was denied by an outrageous double save by the Serbian goalkeeper late in the match).
What about Armenia’s S.M.A.R.T goals for 2015? Considering seeding and past history, a realistic and attainable goal for Armenia should be third place in the group and a playoff berth. Nothing more, nothing less. This is after all an incremental improvement beyond their last Euro campaign (where they just missed out on the playoff) and something they have yet to achieve in their history. Arguably they should have three points, but the fact of the matter is Armenia sits on one point in Group I, three adrift of the playoff spot. That third place berth is currently occupied by Albania, Armenia’s next opponents, a match scheduled to be played in Albania on March 29, 2015. Regardless of the outcome of the other match in the group on that day, Serbia vs. Portugal, securing a victory against Albania will get Armenia’s campaign right back on track at the halfway point in proceedings. That would leave Armenia with at least a tie for that third place spot after four matches with four more left to be played, three of which are at home. If that can be achieved, the results of 2014 will be a distant memory and the task at hand will once again be within reach.