My beloved Luton Town won the Football Conference (the 5th tier of English football) in fine style yesterday, with 101 points and 102 goals to boot.
At one stage they were 10 points behind main rivals Cambridge, and all seemed lost. I remember being at a game last autumn when “Cambridge United, we’re coming for you” echoed from the stands, but there was still a long way to go.
So – how did they win it?
I was curious. And when I’m curious, I make charts.
Here’s a chart showing the cumulative points totals of the two teams:
As you can see, Cambridge were some way ahead until about game #26, when Luton drew level, then overtook.
But the real story here is that Cambridge’s form changed more than Luton’s. Luton’s trajectory trended gently upwards from around game 19 onwards, but Cambridge’s nosedived from around game 16 and took about 20 weeks to recover. So if Cambridge had continued at the same pace as they set at the start of the season, they would have won the title comfortably.
We can see this more easily if we look at a second chart. This one shows each team’s average points per game, using a five-game moving average:
Here the trends are clearer. Luton started slowly but then really got very strong – meanwhile, Cambridge went downhill: the red line drops and drops up to game 31, and their recovery was too little, too late.
I wanted to know how Luton’s cumulative points compared to previous winners. So I made a third chart: this one shows the game-by-game cumulative points for Luton and Cambridge this year, and for the champions of the previous three years:
So in fact Luton only got the third highest total – two other teams also topped 100 points, and they got even more than the Town. Luton actually tailed off somewhat at the end compared to Fleetwood and Crawley in their championship seasons.
What’s most striking here is that Cambridge actually had an even stronger trajectory than any of the winners from the past four years! Their points total (the red line) is the highest of all up to game 21. But as that red line shifts sideways rather than upwards, you can see how Cambridge fell away after the first 1/3rd of the season. The other four teams all won the league.
So, what distinguishes a champion?
And is it possible to predict a champion from their form as the year goes on?
Here’s one more chart, showing the average points per game for Luton, Cambridge, and the previous three winners:
Well well well. There’s a clear jump up in average points per game for all the champions from about game 18. Before then, they averaged around 2.0-2.5 points. After then, the team that wins the league consistently averages 2.5-the max 3.0 points per game on a five-game average.
So if you like a gamble, look out for that next year – that’s how to predict the next Conference champions.
Hard luck to Cambridge – perhaps they will get to League Two next year through the play-offs. But whoever you support, thanks for reading!