An Analytical Perspective on Celtic’s Europa League Woes

The 90 Minute Cynic’s in house analytical expert Seth Dobson looks at Celtic in the Europa League and crunches the numbers on why they are where they are.

Celtic host Dutch giants Ajax at Celtic Park on Thursday in the Europa League. The Celts are currently 4th in Group A, having earned a disappointing 2 points from 4 matches (W0 D2 L2).

Manager Ronny Deila has been heavily criticized for poor team performances in Europe, especially away to Molde. And after a frustrating draw at home against Kilmarnock last Saturday, the pressure seems to be mounting on the Norwegian.

In this post, I will provide an analytical perspective on Celtic’s Europa League results.

I will describe evidence suggesting that Celtic have been unlucky. This does not necessarily mean that I think the performances have been good. However, I am confident that the performances have been good enough to earn more than 2 points. This is based on an analysis of the quantity and quality of the chances created by both sides.

To begin, I will briefly introduce the concept of Danger Zone chances (a phrase coined by Michael Caley).

Source: BBC/Opta (Live Text Commentary)

Source: BBC/Opta (Live Text Commentary)

In Table 1, you can see that conversion rate (goals per shot) depends on the location on the pitch where the shot was taken. The locations “very close range”, “six yard box,” and “centre of the box” are collectively referred to as the Danger Zone, because shots from these locations have a much higher probability of being scored than shots from wide areas in the box or outside the box.

It follows that teams that create more Danger Zone (DZ) chances are more likely to win because they are more likely to outscore their opponents.

However, given the inherent volatility of football, teams that create more DZ chances do not always win. This is the analytical definition of bad luck: a statistically improbable result.

Source: BBC/Opta (Live Text Commentary)

Source: BBC/Opta (Live Text Commentary)

Table 2 shows the number of DZ chances created for and against Celtic in each of their group stage matches. As you can see, the Celts had more DZ chances in 3 of the 4 matches, the lone exception being Molde away. Celtic’s aggregate DZ chance differential is +11 over the four matches.

(Note also that Celtic’s finishing, as measured by the number of shots on target aimed at the top or bottom corner, has been on par with the opposition.)

Given the data in Table 2, coupled with the fact that DZ chances have a higher probability of being converted, it is not unreasonable to suggest that Celtic are unlucky not to have more than 2 points. In other words, their results so far appear to be statistically improbable.

So what? None of this changes the fact that Celtic bottled it against Molde, right?

True. But I suspect that if Celtic were sitting on 7 or 9 points from 4 matches (a tally more in line with the balance of chances created), the criticism of the manager and the team would be much less harsh. This is because we are less likely to focus on or even acknowledge negatives when a team wins.

So before we start talking about sacking the manager for poor results in Europe, we need to consider the fact that goals change games, results change minds, and the team with the better chances does not always win.

Will Celtic turn things around against Ajax on Thursday?

Comment below or tweet us @90minutecynic
Follow Seth on Twitter: @226blog

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