A handful of successive league matches determines the outcome of the season
Football leagues are decided by short periods of time covering a number of successive match days. In the big European leagues, such a phase usually consists of just three or four such match days.
This idea is not revolutionary, but the importance and implications of such phases rarely attract the attention or detailed discussion they deserve. Which is where we come in.
The decisive match day period (“phase”) is to some degree obvious. The key characteristic of such a phase is that the net outcome of the matches involved is particularly beneficial for the eventual league winners. They not only get more points than their direct rivals, but also build momentum, self-confidence, team spirit, fan support, collective belief and similar, i.e. attributes which then play a significant role in carrying them to the title.
This crucial period of gathering points and power is usually two to three weeks somewhere between match day 15 and match day 38. And such a phase occurs in almost every league, regardless of whether the title race is resolved earlier or later in the season.
The timing of this phase is important, yet not sufficiently acknowledged by all involved in a club. Most people know, for example, that nothing is decided in the first few matches of any league. But not everyone seems to know, and certainly not club presidents and directors, who quickly become uncomfortable after any poor start (however you want to define “poor”).
A poor start can therefore lead to a unnecessary loss of trust in the coaching staff by club management and sackings may result. If management took the time to properly understand the phase rule, then they could save themselves unnecessary heartache and make more effective and far-sighted decisions.
So one audience for all our future articles on the phase rule are those presidents (and all would-be presidents) with a tendency to premature panic. If that’s you, you will profit from the content, even (especially?) if you’re the kind of president that regards “Richard III” as the perfect guide to effective management.
These decisive league phases have, of course, always existed. However, we’ve identified two factors that have led to the growing importance of this phenomenon. The first is the introduction of the “three points for a win” rule. The second is the broader interest in football, as observed in, for example, the marketing of the sport and the price of broadcasting rights.
The phase rule applies to all leagues, too – something we’ll also demonstrate in future articles. However, the rule is more significant where a league is relatively competitive and less significant where one team is always way ahead of the rest (as with PSG in the 2015-2016 Ligue 1 season). Even so, we can still identify, for example, which phase of the 2015-2016 Bundesliga season in Germany proved decisive in allowing Bayern Munich to grasp a title-defining advantage over Borussia Dortmund.
And of course it’s not just presidents that need to understand the phase rule. Coaches and other sporting personnel should pay close attention, too. If for no other reason than the possibility of actively defining or exploiting such a phase (see the Moirai-Zeus conflict). Without constructive phase management, teams can find themselves handicapped, for example, when a historical pattern of poor performances in decisive phases of the league becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. (Cough, Arsenal, cough).