Often a side may go on a hot run of unexpectedly improved results and although narrative driven hopes are high that the team has reached a new sustainable plateau of ability, they often drift back towards their usual level of competence and achievement.
The sustainability of recent form can sometimes be appraised by looking at the underlying team statistics, which attempt to track a side’s process, such as chance creation, rather than merely looking at their actual outcome, which may be heavily influence by short term luck.
Luck vs. ability
During his recent barren spell in front of goal, Zlatan Ibrahimovic may have been speaking with a probabilistic view point, when he declared that if he kept getting on the end of scoring opportunities, then the goals would begin to flow again. Or he may simply be a supremely confident individual, with little interest in analytics.
A statistical model of his scoring rate compared to the opportunities he had been provided with, would have shown he was under performing in terms of actual goals scored.
Leipzig currently have the third best total goals scored, the equal third best goals allowed and their goal difference is the equal second best.
But while it was a sufficiently barren run for such a high profile striker that it attracted media coverage, it wasn’t sufficiently extreme not to be simply due to randomness in a relatively small sample size. So modelling of the data and looking at a team or player’s underlying numbers can help.
Early season positions that are at odds with a team’s usual bench mark performances and with little evidence of a major change, such as new investment or squad additions, rarely persist. However, models are never perfect and they often miss the improvement in teams using novel tactical wrinkles.
Stoke entered the Premier League as short priced favourites to immediately return to the Championship. But despite being consistently out shot by opponents and their imminent demise being predicted by naïve total shot models, they regularly avoided any prospect of relegation with ease.
Stoke’s particular tactical quirk was a small pitch in their early Premier League lifetime, a long throw, which created few, but high quality chances and a packed defensive structure and non-stop running that limited the opposition to long range, poor quality efforts.
The partial downfall of their original blueprint came about because of familiarity with their tactics allowing regular opponents to adapt and nullify its effectiveness and the ageing of two major components of their promotion side, the skilful Ricardo Fuller and the arm strength of Rory Delap.
The Leicester City case
Most memorably and recently, Leicester won the Premier League title in a season where they began as one of the favourites for relegation.
Ten months later as champions, they shared few characteristics that are usually associated with successful teams.
They did not dominate possession in the way that Arsenal or Barcelona do, nor did they dominate sides in terms of shots.
However, through a diligent and probably slightly lucky recruitment policy, they assembled a side that was ideally setup to defend in depth and hit opponents quickly on the break to produce chances that made up for in quality what they lacked in quantity.
They may have been lucky, both in the conventional sense that they avoided injuries and had a healthy penalty kick differential and in the distribution and rate at which goals were scored.
But their rapid mode of attack was underrated in many statistical models and attributing all of Leicester’s success to merely luck would be incorrect.
There was genuine improvement to go along with the unusual tactics from the Foxes.
What do Leipzig and Leicester have in common?
The latest side to surprise is RB Leipzig, who entered the winter break second to Bayern Munich.
Leipzig’s success shares some of the serendipity that allowed Leicester to rise to the top in England.
Bayern Munich apart, many of last season’s top German clubs have absented themselves from the title race with lacklustre performances, just as Manchester United and particularly Chelsea did in the 2015/16 Premier League.
Their elimination from the German cup has left them with eight fewer games to contest than Bayern and a depth of squad has eased the implementation of their high intensity pressing style.
Therefore, they share an unconventional tactical approach that characterises may who sustain improved results until it is gradually eroded through over use and opponent familiarity.
Can Leipzig win the Bundesliga?
In more traditional statistics, Leipzig do appear a credible top five side, but perhaps not a legitimate title aspirant.
They currently have the third best total goals scored, the equal third best goals allowed and their goal difference is the equal second best. They also have the second largest share of the shots taken in their games behind Bayern.
However, this does compare favourably with Leicester, who reached the midpoint of the 2015/16 season with a merely average defence, only the 4th best goal difference and an early title challenge that was sustained by the hot scoring exploits of Vardy and Mahrez and a glut of penalty kicks.
The financial input via Red Bull into Leipzig has alienated the project from the community owned ethos of current German teams, but should maintain their position as a top five Bundesliga team in the future.
While their commitment to youth, particularly from sporting director, Ralf Rangnick, who appeared to be in the running to take the England job following on from Roy Hodgson, ensures that the rump of the squad should have their best footballing years in front of them.
They trail Bayern by three points and were soundly beaten when the two recently met just before the winter break. Whereas, at a similar stage last season, the Foxes were already five points clear of their nearest rivals.
But they are probably an excellently run and resourced team, with innovative tactics, who have taken advantage of the temporary failings of others to elevate themselves to slightly greater heights than their core talent and investments merits.
Leipzig are unlikely to become another Leicester in 2016/17, but then again so was Leicester, until they went on to win the Premier league.