Saturday, March 31, 2018

Which AFL Club Has The Easiest Fixture in 2018?

It’s Collingwood, right? The press around the Australian Football League fixture for 2018 certainly focused upon the ‘dream draw’ the Magpies received. Each AFL team only plays five teams twice, and three of Collingwood’s return matches are against bottom teams – their ‘reward’ for finishing in a relatively low position themselves in 2017.

I agree with the consensus view here. I also rate Collingwood as having the easiest AFL fixture in 2018, with a boost of 46 points over the season compared to an average draw (see table below).

How did I determine this? Basically I take the total strength of each team’s opponents throughout the season, and adjust for home ground advantage. The ratings of ‘team strength’ and ‘home ground advantage’ are both taken from my regular AFL Power Rankings system, which aims to give a more accurate reflection of team strength than the AFL ladder does. Take note of this point, that the ladder can sometimes ‘lie’ is important …   
Under this system, a team’s overall fixture rating can be seen as the result of three components:
·         First, there is the total strength of the opponents a team plays twice rather than just once. Under the AFL’s weighted fixture system, which divides teams up into groups of six based on where they finished on the ladder in 2017, this favours the teams that finished near the bottom last season.
·         Second, there is the total net home ground advantage of where a team plays during the season. I say it every year: don’t play your ‘home’ games interstate if you want to do well on this component.
·         And finally there is the effect of not playing your own team. For example, when I’m counting up the strength of reigning premier Richmond’s opponents there is one really good team missing that everyone else has to play: Richmond themselves.  
Collingwood, Port, and the value of seeming to be worse than you are
When it comes to showing how strong teams really are the ladder sometimes ‘lies’, or at least misleads. If I was to characterise the relative strength of each team in 2017, I would do it as follows:  
Really Good: Adelaide, Richmond, Sydney.
Good: Geelong, GWS, Port Adelaide.
Average: Collingwood, Essendon, Hawthorn, Melbourne, St. Kilda, West Coast, Western Bulldogs.
Below Average: Carlton, North Melbourne.
Well Below Average: Brisbane, Fremantle, Gold Coast.
Several other stats-based rating systems – admittedly similar to mine – would give a broadly similar picture: see Matter of Stats, The Arc, FootyMaths Institute, and Hurling People Now, among others.  
But that’s not how the AFL weighs its fixture. As said before it divides teams into groups of six based on how they finished on the ladder in 2017. Depending on how strong you are relative to other teams in your group this can work out well or badly. And in 2018 this works out well for two teams that were the top teams in their groups: Collingwood and Port Adelaide.
Collingwood finished in 13th spot in 2017, putting them at the top of the ‘bottom six’ group. Compared to the other teams in their group the Magpies finished a win and a draw clear of Fremantle – who had a few close wins in 2017 – and three wins and a draw clear of anyone else. They also finished the season off well, so I think they may even be a little better than some of the teams in the next-highest group. Give an average team a fixture that befits a ‘cellar-dweller’ and you have an easy fixture for 2018.
Port Adelaide, meanwhile, finished in 7th spot, putting them at the top of the ‘middle’ group. The Power dropped to 7th after losing a final in extra time to the West Coast Eagles, but their win-loss record was closer to the top four sides than it was to the teams that snuck into the final eight. As a result they play only one ‘top six’ team twice – cross-town rivals the Adelaide Crows. Give a good team a fixture that befits an average side and you also have a relatively friendly schedule.      
I also rate Sydney as having a relatively easy fixture in 2018. After a poor start to 2017 the Swans went on a seriously good run, before it all came unstuck in the semi-finals. Sydney only has to play two matches against the strongest sides of 2017, at least one less than everyone else – they only play Adelaide and Richmond once … and of course, unlike everyone else, they don’t have to play Sydney.
Which teams got it ‘tough’? – the teams that don’t often play host to ‘out-of-towners’
As picked up by the press, reigning premiers Richmond has one of the toughest fixtures in 2018. The Tigers’ only return match against one of the bottom six sides from 2017 is against Collingwood, the toughest of the group. By my rankings, all the teams they play twice are average or above-average sides. It’s a sharp turnaround from the favourable fixture they got last year after finishing 13th in 2016.
I also rate the fixtures of St. Kilda and Essendon as being relatively hard. The Saints get return matches against two of the top six teams in 2018, but none against any of the ‘really bad’ teams. But what also hurts the Saints and Bombers is getting only four games in Victoria against non-Victorian sides, giving them a lower net home ground advantage over the season than most teams. While it matters how much you travel, it also matters how much teams are travelling to play you.    
But really … your fixture only has a marginal effect, though it can help you on your way
We all know that the strength of teams can end up quite different to how you expect it to be. Teams would have been relatively happy about the prospect of playing Richmond twice going into 2017 – after the Tigers massively improved not so much.
But the difference between the hardest fixture and easiest fixture is estimated to be only 93 points, or about four points per match. The net point differential between the Adelaide Crows and the Brisbane Lions last year was 1288 points, or almost 10 goals per match. If Collingwood remains an average team then their relatively easy fixture is not by itself going to bridge the gap between themselves and the very good ones. 
That’s not to say though that an easy fixture doesn’t give you a helping hand. When premiers Richmond finished third on percentage ahead of GWS last year they avoided a first-up final in Adelaide. The net point differential between the Tigers and Giants was 39 points. Due to their horrid 2016 season though, Richmond got to play Brisbane, Carlton, and Fremantle twice. I estimated that their net advantage over the Giants’ fixture was … 60 points.
Cheers to finishing in 13th! Every little bit of advantage counts Magpies …

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