Even More Analysis of Soccer Outcomes using the Luck Metric!

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In the previous entry in this series (see link here) we studied if it was possible that the different styles of playing surface might actually be correlated with increased or decreased luck. In this series, we define luck as the number of actual goals in a game that either exceed or fall short of the expected goals metric (which relies on statistical measures of the likelihood of goals given certain measurable activities in a game). We look at luck for both home teams and away teams, because we all intrinsically understand that home teams tend to have better luck when playing at home. See the previous entry to read about what we found.

Today, we’ll do one more evaluation (probably not the last, but definitely one that piques my interest) to determine if individual head referees presence in a game is correlated with greater or lesser luck. The reason we look at head referees only is that I have a data source which lists who the head referee is for a very large set of games. In theory, the head referee controls the flow of the game and contributes the most to uncertainty of the outcome. We’ll look at officiating for both the MLS and the Premier League to see if 1) certain refs affect the luck metric more often and 2) if the impact to luck is significant or not.

MLS 2023

The methodology here in general is to evaluate how both “home luck” and “away luck” can be grouped across the individual head referees. Then we take the mean value of luck and also the standard deviation (how much the luck values tended to vary from game to game that the individual officiated). These are plotted in a similar way to how we plotted the field surface plots. Keep in mind that we’re attempting to describe the entire distribution of games that an individual official was part of. Since we make the assumption that this distribution follows a Gaussian distribution (bell curve) we believe we can describe the impact across all the games with just the mean luck value and the standard distribution. Below we can see the results, where the square describes the mean and the lines describe the variation.

Home Team “Luck” distribution by Head Referee 2023
Away Team “Luck” distribution by Head Referee 2023

Analysis: I’ll analyze the 2023 MLS results and then leave the analysis of the 2022 MLS games and the Premier League games to the reader. What do I see?

  1. Remember we’re evaluating how each official impacts home and away luck (remember, luck describes actual goals in excess of the number of goals we statistically predict using the expected goals metric). We see very different mean values of luck for the individual referees, but it is hard to say that the extra “lucky” goals are causal due to the participation of the referee. It takes much more work than this kind of statistical analysis to determine causality. It could be that the referree’s impact is actually correlated with some other event that is more causal about the lucky or unluckiness experienced. That’s just statistician speech to make sure we don’t all grab pitchforks and torches!
  2. We do see that certain referees are more likely to be associated with higher or lower luck. Some of the referees’ results are close to the average (mean) of the entire distribution of referees. These are mostly the ones in the middle. This means that statistically, the luck experienced during the games are about the same when these “middle” refs officiate.
  3. However, there are officials off on the edge who do seem to have a statistically higher impact on the luck experienced in the games. The two in red (on the home luck chart) actually are two standard deviations away from the mean value of luck across all the refs. This means that their luck outcomes are different than 95% of all the other referees. This tends to show that the fact that these refs are way out on the edges is not due to chance, but is actually due to something the refs are doing different.
  4. Note that there are 4 or 5 refs in the Home Luck chart who have a mean impact in their games of close to one goal! You can see that the error bars for these refs vary, but at least one seems to almost always have a one goal impact on a game. One could say that these officials are more likely to give penalty kicks in the box (a very high probability of a score). That might be a good guess, because the expected goals metric that I use actually excludes penalty shots (because they’re random — and therefore “lucky” — events that cannot be predicted). But maybe this metric shows that with certain referees, penalty shots are more probable and are therefore less random.
  5. Another interesting thing to see is that the luck impact across all the officials is much lower for the away teams. This means that away teams are less likely to be impacted by the presence of individual officials. This is probably reasonable to assert, given the notion that officials in every sport probably have an unconscious bias for the home team (whose fans are screaming about any calls that go against their teams).
  6. We do see one official whose presence is well-correlated with “good luck” for the home team and “bad luck” for the away team. When I dug in to try to understand why this one official stands out, I discovered that they are very rarely the head official (often getting assigned to do video replays). I also noticed that officials that are outside 67% of the other officials likewise rarely get to be head refs. Perhaps the MLS is paying attention to this (see this webpage for details on this).

Other Charts

MLS 2022

Home Team Luck distribution by head referee (MLS 2022)
Away Team Luck distribution by head referee (MLS 2022)

Note the one official that has no error bar? This is most likely because he was the head official only one time in 2022. It’s small data, but observe that it follows the exact opposite trend that we see this official following in 2023! Weird. We also see more dramatic shifts in mean values for the outlier refs in 2022 than we see in 2023.

Premier League 2023

Home Team Luck distribution by head referee (Premier League 2023)
Away Team Luck distribution by head referee (Premier League 2023)

Premier League 2022

Home Team Luck distribution by head referee (Premier League 2022)
Away Team Luck distribution by head referee (Premier League 2022)


So what do you see in the MLS 2022 and the Premier League charts? There are definitely some interesting trends and differences. Feel free to leave comments on what you see and we can dialogue about them!

LINKS to Other Soccer Analytics Entries

  1. Soccer Analytics Series Intro
  2. MLS and Premier League Comparison
  3. Home and Away Luck Metric
  4. Does Counterpressing Work? Evidence.
  5. Evaluation of Outcomes using the Luck Metric
  6. More Analysis using the Luck Metric
  7. Soccer Analytics in Practice – Youth Soccer Example
  8. xG and Luck update on recent MLS season
  9. xG and Luck update on recent Premier League season

Further Evaluations of Soccer Outcomes using the Luck Metric

In a previous article (link) I discussed how to create and evaluate a simple metric that describes the difference between the number of goals a team is expected to make (using the xG metric) and the actual number of goals they score. I’m calling this difference “luck” because it describes how much a team under- or over-performs the expectations made by the way they play a game. Soccer, perhaps more than other sports, is heavily influenced by these over- and under-performances.

I previously discussed how luck seems to be distributed across teams in MLS and the Premier League both when they are the home team and when they are away. We plotted their mean home luck and away luck against their other metrics that we’ve determined to be predictive, 1) the ratio of xG for a team to xG for the opponent (xG ratio) and 2) the amount the team pays in salary. We could see that teams that have favorable luck at home and/or away tend to perform better. Perhaps this is an example of how a team can “make their own luck”, meaning that perhaps in soccer not all luck is purely random chance. Most likely there are elements buried inside this luck metric that are based off of things we can’t easily measure. Stuff like good preparation, team chemistry, and the two things we’ll evaluate next in this series, the venue a team plays in, and the official overseeing the match. Today we’ll discuss venue.

The reason the intersection of “luck” and venue came to my mind was due to a discussion with an MLS player recently about analytics. We were talking about the strange difference between the relationship between the xG ratio and performance across the MLS and the Premier league (see this link to see this difference). He mentioned a number of elements about the MLS that could explain this difference:

  1. The different ways that MLS teams travel (bus, train, commercial air) vs. the ways that Premier League teams travel (more money = much nicer).
  2. The long distances that MLS teams travel and the widely-varying geographies and altitudes that British teams don’t have to face. Sometimes these distances, especially if it is to be a longer bus ride, influence a team’s willingness to “get a game over with”.
  3. The venue. I was not aware of this, but the player mentioned that there were still six teams in the MLS playing on artificial turf. Here’s a wikipedia page providing the details of all MLS stadiums. Sure enough, there are actually seven fields using some kind of turf, ‘Lumen Field’, ‘Providence Park’, ‘BC Place Stadium’, ‘Gillette Stadium’, ‘Mercedes-Benz Stadium’, ‘BMO Field’, ‘Bank of America Stadium’. When I did a simple grouping operation to evaluate the mean luck score for home and away teams on turf and then compare these numbers to games on grass, I see a difference. Stay with me and I’ll describe it.

Breaking down Luck by Playing Surface

2023: Interestingly, in 2023, we see both Home and Away teams performing slightly better in terms of “luckiness” when playing on TURF! This is likely close to how the MLS player imagined the result would be. This means that home teams outperformed their expected goals by a bit more (.229 on turf to .167 on grass) and away teams slightly underperformed their expectations (-0.058 on turf vs. -0.014 on grass). This makes sense that the “turf-based” home team is more familiar with their playing surface and they therefore outperform expectations more then how a “grass-based” team outperforms on their grass surface. Yes, this is confusing, but it appears that turf gives their teams a bigger advantage than grass gives their teams. My guess is that this is based on the fact that there are more grass fields and they are very familiar to all teams. Away teams, however, always seem to underperform compared to home teams and we see this underperformance to be more noticeable on turf. So in essence, in 2023, the data indicates that teams with turf had a measurable advantage at home greater than the advantage teams with grass saw. In 2022, we don’t see these exact results, however, with Home Team luck being a tossup between turf and grass and Away teams still seeing poorer performances (-0.064 on turf vs, 0.161 on grass). Still, this shows a small advantage for the Turf-based teams.

Detailed Views of Luck for 2023 (season still incomplete)

Here are some errorbar plats that will allow us to see some of this detail more clearly. NOTE that stadiums with turf fields have their labels on the plot in red. Other things to be aware of… the vertical lines represent the range of luck results (standard deviation) and the squares represent the mean luck values at each stadium. Nodes with no vertical bars tend to be stadiums where only one game was played, therefore there was no variation of luck. The results are sorted from greatest to least luck.

2023 error bar plot for Home Team Luck by Venue (note Turf playing fields in red)
2023 error bar plot for Away Team Luck by Venue (note Turf playing fields in red)

Detailed Views of Luck for 2022 (season still incomplete)

2022 error bar plot for Home Team Luck by Venue (note Turf playing fields in red)
2022 error bar plot for Away Team Luck by Venue (note Turf playing fields in red)

What Do We See in these Plots??

  1. The “Luck Slope” for both home and away teams is steeper for 2023 than 2022. My guess is that this is due to the fact that the 2023 season is still being played. It will be interesting to see if the difference in luck between the top venues and the bottom ones flattens out as the season progresses.
  2. But even though the season isn’t complete, the data from 2023 is interesting. So far, we can see that for the Home Teams, the “red” venues (these have artificial turf surfaces) tend to be more towards the left of the chart. This is the “higher luck” side. Conversely, the same venues that are positive for the Home teams are on the left side of the Away Team chart, meaning that the turf fields are less lucky for away teams.
  3. If you do a study field-by-field, the “luckier” venues in 2022 are not the same ones seen in 2023. There could be lots of variables other than playing surface that could describe this. Take a look and see what you can uncover! For example, Lumen Field (home of the Seattle Sounders) is incredibly unlucky for the Sounders in 2023 (and is lucky for their opponents!) but in 2022 it was about middle of the road. Despite this unluckiness, the Sounders are 2nd in the MLS Western Division right now! One observation I’d make is that the Sounders are one of a couple of teams where their home luck and away luck do not diverge much. For a good visualization of this, see 2023 chart at this link.
  4. There are a whole lot of different analyses that could be done using this data. Feel free to discuss in the comments section of the blog! I probably haven’t thought yet about what you noticed!

LINKS to Other Soccer Analytics Entries

  1. Soccer Analytics Series Intro
  2. MLS and Premier League Comparison
  3. Home and Away Luck Metric
  4. Does Counterpressing Work? Evidence.
  5. Evaluation of Outcomes using the Luck Metric
  6. More Analysis using the Luck Metric
  7. Soccer Analytics in Practice – Youth Soccer Example
  8. xG and Luck update on recent MLS season