You know what, too many people are doing half-arsed ladder predictions. By which I mean, they’ll only tip the top 8, or give a range of possible finishing values, or say who will rise and who will fall but not by how much.
That’s garbage, people. Yes, it’s difficult. Sure, nobody will ever get it just right. You can still have a crack, and let me measure it.
Here is Squiggle’s prediction for 2021. No really hot takes this year, and it’s going to be a tough one after an unusual 2020. But this is the model’s attempt after factoring in off-season movements, long-term injuries, and preseason form (yes, that one practice match).
For my day job, I write novels. One of my favourite story-telling elements is suspense, which is responsible for the feeling that you can’t put the book down because you want to see what happens next. Suspense is a huge part of sport, too, and so I decided to break down AFL Australian Rules Football from a story-telling perspective, to see what it does right and wrong.
The first thing to note about suspense is that it’s kind of unpleasant to experience. It makes us feel tense, and we generally don’t want to feel tense. But we’ll willingly subject ourselves to it when we know there’s an emotional payoff at the end, and our tension will be resolved into another feeling (joy, usually, but not always).
Logically, we might want to skip the unpleasant part and jump straight to the payoff, but of course it doesn’t work that way: We can’t read the last chapter of a book, or watch the final scene of a movie, and feel the same emotional impact. A big part of the payoff is the feeling of release, and if we haven’t been stewing in tension, there’s nothing to release from.
Feeling tense is also a good sign that a story is accomplishing its most basic purpose, by the way, which is to sustain your interest. It’s not the only way to do that, but if you feel tense, you must care about what’s happening, so the story is at least getting that right.
So, as a writer, I’m a fan of suspense. But it’s a little dangerous, because of the aspect I mentioned before, that tension is unpleasant. This puts the author on the hook to deliver an emotional payoff that makes the tension worthwhile – otherwise readers will feel frustrated and annoyed, even if they can’t quite articulate why.
Ideally, readers want a joyful payoff: good people succeeding, bad people getting what they deserve. But other emotions are usually fine, too–horror, despair, surprise. It’s not essential that the payoff is positive; it’s only essential that it exists. After making people feel tense, you have to let them feel something else.
Football is exceptionally good at suspense. Here’s why:
The situation can change rapidly. That’s where suspense comes from: the knowledge that things are about to change in an important way. The greater the difference between possible outcomes – when it might be very good but might also be very bad – and the more imminent the change is, the more tension we feel. When a situation is static, there’s no suspense. Nor is there much when the coming change is predictable or irrelevant. But when everything is on the line and will be irrevocably resolved either one way or the other at any moment, that’s peak suspense.
Tension is resolved quickly and cleanly. Our team scores or is scored against; it wins or loses. This unambiguous resolution into one of two polar opposite outcomes is really wonderful, and hard to craft in fiction. Even when the emotional payoff is negative – our team concedes a goal or loses the match – it’s delivered emphatically, so there’s closure. Knowing in advance that we’ll get that clear resolution is important, too, allowing us to surrender to the experience.
The amount of tension varies during a game. Tension is exhausting. Too much for too long and we’ll withdraw emotionally to protect ourselves. So tension should build and subside, multiple times, before being resolved – and that’s what we get from a football match, with the ebb and flow of scoring opportunities, and then a final outcome.
The suspense is natural, not forced. A story can fake up some cheap suspense by pausing to deliberately draw out the moment of reveal. You might be able to think of a few books or shows that did this, and you probably found them annoying, because you became aware that someone was deliberately making you feel tense (which is unpleasant!) just for the sake of it. But in football, suspense is organic, the natural result of the play, which allows us to remain compelled.
The resolution matters. We usually have a preference for one team, which means, in simple terms, that there are good guys and bad guys, and we’ll feel differently depending on who prevails.
Of course, all this is more true of some games more than others. When there’s a blowout, the outcome becomes predictable, and there’s less tension. And dead rubbers are hard to care about, even close ones, because the result won’t change anything.
Now you might notice that all of these excellent positives are basic elements of the game. In fact, they’re true of most sports. (And other things, like gambling.) That’s no coincidence; sport’s ability to generate a good suspenseful experience is, no doubt, a key factor in why we enjoy it.
As we turn to the negatives, though – the ways in which football does suspense wrong – we’ll be mostly looking at modern inventions. Because, at least in story-telling terms, what we’ve done to football is mostly screw it up.
Bad Suspense #1: The Goal Review
To be fair, let’s declare up front that the Goal Review isn’t supposed to create suspense. It’s supposed to reduce umpiring error. In a little while, I’ll attempt to convince you that this is far less important than it seems. But first let’s just tally up the damage it does to good suspense.
The Goal Review attacks the moment of resolution: the instant that tension turns into something else (ecstasy, despair). A football match lasts for a couple of hours but has a relatively small number of key moments, where tension is spiking because the play may be about to result in an important goal. These moments are an immensely valuable opportunity to reward the audience by releasing the tension they’ve built up.
Here are two goals by the same player: ex-Tiger, new Saint Jack Higgins. First, a regulation goal. It’s worth turning on sound so you can hear how crowd noise lifts whenever the likelihood of change rises, ebbs when the situation becomes static, and peaks in the moment of resolution.
All this is good. Tension rises and subsides, spikes and is cleanly resolved. It’s satisfying. Even opposition fans, hoping for no goal, receive a sharp, clean emotional response – which is fine, because good story is not about the good guys always getting their way; we all understand that.
Now another Jack Higgins goal. This time, the crowd noise rises as he’s about to goal… but wait! The goal umpire appears indecisive. The crowd’s engagement dies. Soon the field umpire calls for a review. There’s some booing, and although the commentators get excited, the crowd is restless and unhappy as they wait for a result.
The part after that, where the video review gets it wrong, is not really the problem here. The problem is everything that happened before, where the moment of emotional payoff was stretched out until it disappeared.
Of course, a bad goal review is especially unpopular. So, to be fair, here’s peak ARC, detecting a fantastic goal that would have been missed. It can’t get any better than this:
Yet even here, the crowd reaction reveals that this an overwhelmingly negative experience (and not just because of partisan fans – other St Kilda goals from the same match receive a more typical response).
It’s unsatisfying for fans on both sides because the Goal Review tells us that the tension we just resolved is actually getting resolved the other way, in retrospect. In storytelling terms, this is a little like an after-credits scene where the bad guy turns out to be not dead after all. Even when it’s the result you wanted, it’s not satisfying and it doesn’t feel right.
So first, we have the emotional resolution being stretched out from a single moment (great!) to a minute or two (awful). The crowd’s tension turns into the bad, self-aware kind, where they know they are subjected to an artificial pause and nothing is actually happening. The sharp emotional peak is gone; instead, we have a valley of frustrated waiting between two low hills.
Second, the act of resolution shifts from the field to the scoreboard, where the audience has to look to see which word will be flashed up on the screen. This strikes me as like the hero going home after fighting the bad guy and waiting for a phone call to confirm whether he won.
Third, no goal is safe! The audience can’t safely celebrate (or grieve) any goal unless and until it becomes absolutely clear that it won’t be reviewed. The mere threat of a review can turn quick, satisfying resolutions into slow, frustrating ones.
Here are a few more footballing crimes against suspense:
Bad Suspense #2: Deliberate Out of Bounds
This rule creates a period of two or three seconds – sometimes more – where the crowd realizes a potential infringement is about to occur but must wait for the umpire’s judgement. This is quite a lot longer than other infringements, since we need (a) the ball to finally dribble over the line, (b) the whistle to be blown – which will occur regardless of whether there’s an infringement, and thus convey no useful information – and (c) the umpire to run in and perform a signal.
Again, we’ve lost a quick, natural resolution, and have instead the artificial, annoying form of tension, where we’re being made to wait for a decision. It’s exacerbated here by the Deliberate Out of Bounds rule’s infamous ambiguity, since it’s hard to guess what the umpire will decide. And, again, it shifts our focus from the players, who we want to watch, to the umpires, who we don’t.
Bad Suspense #3: The Rushed Behind
Why, exactly, players are permitted to boop the ball over the line here but not elsewhere around the boundary line, where it matters less, is honestly beyond me.
But anyway. We have a crescendo moment where the stakes are at their highest… but there’s an escape hatch, a special pathway to the most anti-climactic of results. This is like a showdown between the hero and the antagonist that gets called off at the last minute.
Also – not that this has anything to do with suspense – it’s less satisfying to watch someone succeed through dumb luck rather than effort, wit, daring or skill. That is, in fact, the antithesis of what sport is supposed to be about. It’s perverse to incentivize world-class athletes to act like bumbling fools. If we want to watch people failing to control a football, we already have our local park.
Bad Suspense #4: The Hit Post
Most obviously, if we stopped caring about whether the ball brushed the goal post on its way through, we wouldn’t need so many goal reviews.
But beyond this, the rule that declares the ball dead when it hits the post and bounces back into play robs us of a suite of rare but shocking twist moments, where everything is suddenly transformed. I won’t go on about this, because I know it’s too radical a change for many people. But in narrative terms, it’s an amazing opportunity. And it’s natural: It’s what would happen if we hadn’t specifically created a rule to outlaw it. But because we have created that rule, we require a goal review whenever the ball approaches a post.
So that’s not great. If you only cared about suspense, you would fix those four things as a priority. And you might do it like this:
No goal reviews. The umpire’s decision is final. That’s it.
Deliberate Out of Bounds: Instead of asking umpires to guess whether a player intended to send the ball out of play, ask whether another player could have touched it first. It no longer matters who intended what. Terrible accidental kicks that run straight out of bounds are penalized. In the vast majority of cases, the crowd can immediately tell whether a free kick will or won’t be paid, even before the ball goes out of play.
No special exemption for rushing behinds. When the ball is on the line, it’s do or die.
We stop caring whether the ball brushes the post. If it goes through, it’s a score. If it bounces back, it’s play on. If it’s a Grand Final and the team is down by one point and a kick after the siren bounces back, then wow, that was some amazingly bad luck, which people will never forget.
Of course, we don’t only care about suspense. We also care about fairness. And that’s essentially why these rules exist: to make the sport fair.
Which sounds eminently reasonable, because fairness is at the heart of sport. But I want to dig into that a little. Because there are different kinds of fairness, and some are more important than others:
Teams must engage on a level playing field, with the same opportunities. This type of fairness is non-negotiable. Without it, we don’t have sport at all, but instead something like Wrestlemania: lots of drama, no integrity. Sport can’t tolerate cheating or entrenched advantage without surrendering part of its soul.
Victory should be determined by the performances of the players, not luck, such as in the form of umpiring errors. This is surely true. But unlike the first point, it doesn’t need to be absolutely true. In fact, it can’t be absolutely true, and sport would be worse if it were. Luck is inherent in the bounce of the ball. And while too much luck is bad – we want to watch players testing their athletic limits, not a roulette wheel – so is too little, lest we wind up with predictable matches that are divorced from the real world, where sometimes people really are done in by forces beyond our control. Yes, bad luck can be devastating, and feel like a wrong that must be righted, but it’s also natural. Football is partly an analogy for our lives, and without the danger of a truly unlucky catastrophe, that analogy becomes shallower.
I realize this may sound contentious, especially for people who don’t routinely invent stories where bad things happen to good people. But luck isn’t the ultimate enemy. When we believe it must be eliminated at all costs, we can actually damage parts of the game that matter more.
Players shouldn’t be penalized for honest mistakes. This is a self-evidently ludicrous idea, in my opinion, but it’s why we have the Deliberate Out of Bounds rule, the Rushed Behind Rule, and the Hit Post rule, so here we are. This is a corrupted idea of fairness that leads to unfair outcomes in practice, such as rewarding players who successfully deceive umpires.
So there you go. Football is still pretty great at generating suspense. But we’re undercutting it in the name of types of fairness that don’t actually matter much. As we enter the off-season, and prepare for the annual round of which-rule-will-they-change-next, I hope that less attention will be paid to fairness, and more to making it a satisfying experience to watch it.
I got into football stats because I wanted to understand why my team was so bad for so long and was there any hope for the future or should I just die. That was about 20 years ago. Along the way, I learned that plenty of common football wisdom is probably wrong. Stats people can show it’s wrong, but everyone just keeps repeating it anyway.
So to save you 20 years, if it’s not already too late, these are some of the most useful things I’ve picked up.
Scoring Shots Matter
It’s better to be a team that kicks 6.18 (54) than 9.0 (54). People will criticize the former and say bad kicking is bad football, but the truth is that there’s a lot of luck – or at least unpredictability – in goalkicking, no matter who you are. It’s harder to fluke 24 passages of play that move the ball into a scoring position than 9 accurate kicks, so you want to be the team that’s generating lots of chances, even if it’s not taking them. Because, all things being equal, that team will perform better in the future.
Momentum isn’t Really a Thing
Story is a huge part of why we enjoy football, so there’s lots of talk of momentum: of power shifts, and causality, where this thing caused that thing to happen. But momentum is a weak effect at best, and might not exist at all. When a team goes on a run and scores five or six goals in a row, that’s not a dam breaking, where if only the first goal had been stopped, none of the others would have followed. It’s more like flipping a coin a bunch of times and getting a random string of heads or tails.
Close Games are a Toss-Up
When a team puts together a string of close wins (or losses), here come the hot takes on what it means for their culture or mental toughness. And while good teams do win more close games, they also win more not-close games. So, more accurately, they just win more.
Common wisdom says teams put the cue in the rack once a game is won, so might let through a few junk time goals that don’t really mean anything. A similar piece of common wisdom says teams on the wrong end of a belting drop their heads and so also let through late goals that don’t mean much. These ideas contradict each other.
In fact, nothing special seems to happen in junk time at all. Late scores contribute just as much information about future team performance as any other. So, in reality, better teams win by greater margins no matter what the clock shows when they score.
There isn’t Much Wood, Either
There’s that one team. The bunny. No matter how badly things are going, you always beat them. At least, at a particular venue. You can count the streak going back years and years, even to when none of the players or coaches were the same.
There might be times when one team matches up particularly well on another, or when psychological factors are in play, but with 18 teams and 30 distinct venues, you would expect to find long win streaks even if every match were randomly decided.
And once you permit some wiggle room – e.g. “X have beaten Y in 4 out of the last 5 games at venue Z” – it’s even easier to find an interesting but meaningless stat.
Home Advantage is Probably About Crowds
Home advantage is definitely a thing. But people attribute it to a lot of different factors – especially travel distance and ground shape – that there isn’t much evidence for. But there is reason to believe that if you dominate a stadium with your team’s fans, it will exhibit home ground advantage, no matter who travelled where. The main vector is likely to be social pressure on umpiring decisions.
Travel is a burden, to be sure, and generates physical and logistical challenges that teams have to manage. But its effect on game-day performance seems small enough to be hard to detect at all. This is probably why a 50-minute drive to Geelong depresses the performance of Melbourne-based teams more than a flight to Queensland.
Also Home Advantage is Not Everything
At its strongest, home advantage is probably worth somewhere around two goals. Which is nothing to sneeze at. But usually it’s less. And the world’s best football tipper will struggle to reliably get within four goals of a game’s actual margin, which gives you some idea of the room for error here. So home grounds aren’t quite the unbreachable fortresses that people like to think.
Also, across a season, the home advantage games of teams are so well balanced by their away disadvantage games that the difference is rarely worth getting worked up about. With the exception of 2020, you wouldn’t normally expect any team to win or lose even one whole extra game based on its fixtured home advantage.
When considering who to tip between two evenly-matched teams, it’s logical to lean toward the home team, because they really do win more often. But that doesn’t make it anything like a sure thing.
Beware the Bye, Not the Short Break
It makes intuitive sense that a team with fewer days’ break between games than their opposition is at a disadvantage. And, like travel, it’s obviously something you’d avoid if you could. But there isn’t much evidence that a day or two’s less rest than your opponent makes you win any less.
There is, however, a reasonable case to be made for the Killer Bye – the increased likelihood of poor performance following a much longer break than your opponent. And not just if you’re wearing blue hoops.
There is a Lot of Unpredictability in Football
Firstly, people aren’t great at understanding probability:
What People Hear, Apparently
Also, good tippers get somewhere around 6/9 correct in the long term. So do average tippers. For many people, the number of tips you get right in a year depends on how predictable that year turns out to be, how lucky you are, and how much you know about football, in that order.
So while some people are better tippers than others – and the market as a whole is better than all of them – the difference can be hard to detect, especially within a single season.
What this really means, though, is that there’s always a chance. No matter how terrible your team and how numerous or confident the people tipping against them, there is always a pretty good chance that those people are wrong. And thank God, you know, because who wants football to be that predictable?
It was a rough year for preseason ladder forecasts, with not one of the 56 experts, websites and models tracked by Squiggle managing better than a C+ grade. So, to be honest, no-one should be that proud. Then again, 2020 has presented unique challenges for forecasters, so perhaps it’s surprising that anyone got as close as they did.
All year, Nick Dal Santo seemed to have this award on lock, but in the final round, McClure got him by the barest of margins.
McClure’s ladder is, at first glance, not great: He has GWS to win the minor premiership and Fremantle the wooden spoon. But it’s deceptive, because between these bookends, every other team is not far off, with two-thirds within three rungs of their actual position. The two misses in his Final Eight (Geelong and St Kilda) were tipped for 9th and 10th. So it’s not flashy, but it adds up.
Dal Santo’s ladder is ever so slightly weaker across the board, but boasts only one miss in the Final Eight (GWS instead of St Kilda), and three teams within a single rung of their actual finish, including the Crows at 17th.
It was a particularly bad year for models, who ply their craft by analyzing a fixture that, as it turned out, went up in smoke after Round 1. Eleven of the worst 14 ladders were by models, who were commonly stung by North Melbourne, West Coast and Hawthorn. Squiggle escaped the pit mainly by tipping a bottom-2 finish for the Crows.
Anyone can fluke a good year; true oracles have staying power. Of the 24 forecasters tracked in both years so far, Nat Edwards has the best long-term record, following a 7th-placed finish in 2019 with 6th this year.
Honourable Mention: Mitch Cleary (14th in 2019, 5th in 2020).
There are things to like about this ladder: Geelong in the Top 4, which many missed, Port Adelaide up at 5th, and Essendon bang on at 13th. But around the middle it’s a disaster area, with Hawthorn and Adelaide making finals just ahead of Sydney, while the Saints sit way down at 16th. There but for the grace of God go any one of us, and there were plenty of wonky ladders in 2020, but someone has to be last, and this year it’s this one.
There’s a new entry on tip pages named s10. This isn’t a model; instead, it’s the average of tips by the 10 top-performing models of the previous year, as measured by MAE.
The idea here is that in the future, we can allow more models to join the Squiggle platform without worrying so much about whether they’ll turn out to be any good. Because although they might affect the performance of Aggregate, they can’t throw out s10.
Aggregate is the average of all models, including Punters.
s10 is the average of the 10 models with the lowest season MAE the year before.
Note that if a model qualifies for s10 but does not participate, it is omitted and not replaced.
s10 Models (in alphabetical order)
The Arc, FMI, GRAFT Ratings, Matter of Stats, plusSixOne, Squiggle
The Arc, FMI, GRAFT Ratings, Live Ladders, Massey Ratings, Matter of Stats, plusSixOne, Squiggle, Stattraction, Swinburne
Aflalytics, AFL Lab, The Arc, GRAFT Ratings, Live Ladders, Matter of Stats, plusSixOne, Squiggle, Swinburne
Update (March 17, 2021):
AFL_GO*, Aflalytics, AFL Lab, GRAFT Ratings, Live Ladders, Massey Ratings, Matter of Stats, plusSixOne, Squiggle, Stattraction
* Model qualified for year but did not participate.
In a classic contest, Hawthorn kicked the last three goals to defeat Port Adelaide by 6 points in the inaugural virtual Grand Final.
The Hawks led – barely – at quarter and half time, before the Power turned it on in the third, kicking away to a 13-point break at three-quarter time. But in the final stanza, Hawthorn surged back to tie it up at 79 points apiece with only minutes remaining on the clock. Mitch Lewis delivered the winning goal, with the Hawks resisting a final Port Adelaide surge to capture the premiership.
The Hawks finished 5th after the 11-game regular season, and won four finals en route to claiming the Virtually Season 2020 flag.
Port Adelaide’s Grand Final defeat was their only loss of the season.
Thanks to everyone who followed along with the season – it was a lot of fun during the cold, football-free weeks. Special thanks to the trusty model authors who fronted up each week with their simulations: Stattraction, Live Ladders, Aflalytics, and The Flag, who modeled the Grand Final.
Thanks to Stattraction, we have Coleman Medal results:
Yes, that’s a shared Coleman. Also a low-scoring Coleman, thanks to a simulation bug that afflicted the first half of the season and stole goals from each team’s main scorer. Also scores in general were down, since we were simulating 16-minute quarters.
Finals begin Wednesday June 3rd at 7:50pm EST and continue almost every night for the next week.
Since there is no actual football, we will do the next best thing: simulate it.
With the support of the world’s best football computer models, Squiggle will play out each and every cancelled game in real-time, as if it were really happening.
Goals. Behinds. Score worms. Quarter time breaks. They will all unfold here at the exact same time the match is supposed to be played.
It will look like this:
This will continue all season long, game by game, until actual games resume. We will track a virtual Ladder and Top Eight. If, God help us, we don’t get real football back by September, we will hold virtual Finals and award a virtual Premier.
This Thursday night at 7:25pm Eastern Time, Collingwood will play Richmond in the first virtual match in real-time, here on this site. You can check in and see it happen.
I believe Australia needs football. I need football. Or, in the absence of the real thing, a simulated version from computer models.
How It Works
Usually models make predictions about the most likely outcome of a game (e.g. “Collingwood by 4 pts”). But they can also generate batches of simulations, where if Collingwood is a 60% win chance over Richmond, then in 100 sims, Collingwood will win 60 of them. In the other 40, Richmond will win. (In a few, unusual things might happen, like a team scoring over 120 points.)
Participating models supply Squiggle with their sims. At match time, Squiggle randomly plucks one out and unspools it in real-time. No-one knows in advance which sim it will be.
My Promise To You
This is as rigorous a process as I can make it, drawing from the work of highly talented football analysts and math wonks who created the world’s best football models.
There will be no bias or fiddling. Just hard maths and cruel random variation.
It’s not the real thing. But it’s virtually season 2020.