Does pre-season form matter for promotion?

With pre-season now drawing to a close, Alex Cooke looks back at past seasons to establish whether pre-season and form taken into the campaign make any difference for mounting a successful promotion push.

Can anybody predict promotion from pre-season? What exactly does a crushing 11-0 win against a Norcia XI teach us?

What can Paolo learn from a match as one sided as a Melanie Phillips column against Marche XI? Do two 4-0 scorelines about local sides tell us more about the season to come than a narrow defeat by Reading? Have we discovered if Raffaele De Vitta and Alan Connell will score the goals Swindon need? Have the games shown that the trialist trio of Risser, Atiku and Kerrouche will really thrive in English football? And, does just two goals conceded in five games indicate that Alberto Comazzi’s experience of catenaccio will lead us to clean sheets and promotion?

The answer is that we don’t know, not just because we didn’t see every minute of every game with our own eyes but because pre-season friendlies aren’t just meaningless, they are also useless for making any kind of prediction.

We all know what every the manager says about pre-season: ‘at this stage results don’t matter’, even if Paolo Di Canio put a twist on this particular homily telling the Advertiser: “It does not matter if we won 11-0 or 2-0 the important thing was they did everything that we had been working on during training.”

We know that managers want to use these games to focus on fitness, formation and team bonding, but it is always tempting to take heart when your side thumps even a group of rarely sober postmen and mobility scooter-users 11-0. After all, then you can say ‘we are building momentum to take into the new season’.

Whatever the aim of pre-season, the same questions remains: Can we extrapolate from the scorelines of pre-season matches to league football? Do battered minnows and lucky draws against Premier League reserves actually translate into three points on the opening day and
beyond? What about if the team has a history of heavily conceding? And, if scoring is a problem in pre-season will it always remain so? Finally, how many of these friendly matches are too many, and when does fitness building become fatigue?

To try to find out a few answers, we’ve analysed the goals scored, and conceded, and the overall results of the last 15 seasons of Swindon Town’s pre-season matches to see if what happens before the season begins matters in the 46 games to come.

With friendlies like these…

First of all, form means nothing. Of the 15 season studied not one produced lower percentage of wins than 40 per cent, which, once translated into a full season of games would have meant at least a top half finish every single time. And we all know that hasn’t always happened.

Take the season just gone, 2010/11. For this abomination of a season is an excellent example of the utter pointlessness of making predictions based on wins and draws alone. 2010/11 started with six wins in seven friendly games earning Danny Wilson’s team a table-topping 86 per cent win-percentage and gave many fans the impression that Dossevi and Prutton et al would be world beaters. And, if that friendly form had been turned into results over the season, and included draws) Swindon would have amassed a record 124 points. The 18 goals (2.57 goals per game) notched in those seven games also failed to hint at the problems scoring, although the nine conceded
(1.29 per game) did point at another flaw – one that became all too apparent as the Greer-less season wore on.

Pre-season predicted: 1st of 24. Actual position: 24th of 24.

McMahon’s side went downhill so fast it had Swiss people banging cowbells at it.

Similarly not many would pick out as 1997/98 as a great season, but the friendly figures show it to be STFC’s second best during these 15 years. Many will remember it for the way that Town’s, and Chris Hay’s form, departed the moment Wayne Allison did. However, Steve McMahon’s team were superb throughout pre-season, earning the second highest win percentage of 73 per cent, which would have again been the kind of form to march into top spot at the end of the season proper. In reality, after a good start McMahon’s side went downhill so fast it had Swiss people banging cowbells at it.

Pre-season predicted: 1st of 24. Actual position: 18th.

If a good pre-season is no indicator of success, how about a bad one? 2000/01 with a mere 40 per cent is by far the worst pre-season run (final placing 20th) and with 2005/06’s 44 per cent (final placing 12th) it could look like a pattern for failure – except that the next two worst pre-seasons both ended in the play-offs. For both Wilson’s 2009/10 team and Andy King’s 2003/04 side had a 45 per cent of their games ending in wins (45.4 and 45.1 per cent respectively). Interesting? Probably not when you add in that 1999/00 also had a 45.4 percentage wins and yet that season was included relegation, administration and perhaps worst of all: the appointment of Colin Todd.

Score early, score often

At first glance goals scored seems to offer a more promising indicator, for on this count 2006/07 comes out top and that was a highly successful season. During this time Dennis Wise, and latterly Paul Sturrock, led the team to promotion through hard work and a strong defence. And yet, during that pre-season Wise’s team were utterly irresistible upfront. They scored goals (3.29 per game) and let them in at a miserly rate of one per game (4th best). But a draw and a defeat during the seven games gave them a lowly 57 per cent win percentage (8th highest overall).

Ironically this Town side, which had been so free scoring in pre-season, ended up the second lowest scoring team in the top ten.

Pre-season predicted: 5th of 24. Actual position: 3rd.

The second highest goal scoring pre-season was 2001/02 when Roy Evans’ men put in 2.83 goals per game before finishing 13th after yet another season of internal and managerial chaos. Third place goes to 1996/97, with 2.71 and a 19th place real-world finish.

If the promotion season of 2006/07 hints at a tight defence in pre-season resulting in a season of good performance at the back, the figures don’t bear it out this out. In 2007/08 Town conceded 0.56 goals per game in pre-season but finished the real season in 13th. In 1998/99 it was still 0.60 but they only earned a 17 place finish in 2000/01 it was 0.83, and in the season proper Swindon limped into 20th place.

How many is too many?

Despite Paolo Di Canio’s team opting for just five games in this pre-season, it seems that seven is the optimum amount of matches to play, judging by past league performances.

This number stems from the fact that of the three seasons in which Town played seven friendly matches, the average final league placing was 11th. The second highest average league placing came after 11 matches with an average league finish of 13th. However, some of these stats must come with a health warning as many of these matches were played by reserve or youth sides.

Only once over the last fifteen years have Swindon Town played only five matches and so the average league placing of 20th might be deceptive.

So what can we expect from 2011/12, if our pre-season form is to be believed? Well, get to the bookie now as Paolo Di Canio will collect the trophy with a record 108 points due to an 80 per cent win ratio. His team will have scored an astonishing 230 goals in the league, notching about 5 per game and letting in just 18 goals (0.4 per game) over the entire season. Which clearly has to mean something. Doesn’t it?

Pre-season predicted: 1st of 24. Actual position: TBC.

Follow Alex on Twitter @AlexJamesCooke

One comment

  • Comment on methodology

    What hasn’t been factored in to these matches are how difficult each game  might be. Can you rank a scratch team of Italian rank amateurs or a hard-working non-league aiming to test themselves? Can you compare a game  against a Millwall side played behind closed doors over three 30 minute matches or even Fenerbache team of uninterested internationals who haven’t stared their own pre-season?
     
    Then do you have to factor in the Swindon side put out? Do trialist count the same as senior pros, as reserves or youth team players? Clearly this would be subjective at best and meaningless at worst. Anyway, I’m not a statisician and I’m certainly not a methodologist – I’ve done it with a girl-so these slightly rougher figures offer a more truthful view, if a slightly blunt one.

    Alex

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