The Goals Sprayin’, With Or Without You: Jermaine Jones and The Problem With “Points Added” in Soccer / by Tom Worville

By Tom Worville (@worville)

Here’s the deal. Jermaine Jones is a 34 year old United States international midfielder, whose contract with the New England Revolution expired at the end of the 2015 season. He is suspended for six games in the 2016 MLS season after assaulting a referee (see below), a ban that carries over into any league he eventually moves to.

According to Jones, the Revolution have made him an offer for the 2016 season, but it’s “less than 20%” of his salary from last season - which was $3,052,500 (meaning the offer by the Revolution is  less than $600,000). For a 34 year old player who is only eligible for 28 to 34 games and has had a history of groin injuries recently - that’s still a lot of money.

So what’s the fuss all about? Well Jones posted the following picture on Instagram recently (that has since been removed):

Evidently this post is Jones trying to prove his worth to the New England Revolution - but it asks an interesting question: do these “with or without you” notes mean anything?

From calculating the points from his’s post, you can work out the points added by him while playing. See below:

This says that Jones is worth a whopping one point extra per game if you collate both the 2014 and 2015 seasons. This might seem correct from his point of view, but does it make any sense from an analysts perspective?

For a start, the matches played are not homogeneous. The opponents differ in quality and the location of the game differs between home and away. There’s also likely to be a difference in player strength (given lineups change frequently) but for this exercise I don’t think looking into that is necessary. Let’s take a look at the games just in the 2015 season, with and without Jones, starting with the first five games.

(The numbering gets a little weird on these, so look for the white background that shows games with Jones and red background for games without him. These are taken from transfermarkt)

Jones missed these games due to injury, but were there any surprise results here? Losses against the Sounders and NYCFC were both away, with Sounders being a very strong side anyway. The next three results against Montreal, San Jose and Colorado are probably par for the course considering the strength of the teams faced.

Matches 6-13 all featured Jones. These games featured three wins, two at home and one away to a very poor Philadelphia side. The rest of the fixtures were draws with a mixture between home and away games, and a loss away to a tough Sporting KC side. Once again, no real surprises.

Jones missed matches 14 through 20 and spent game 21 on the bench. During this time, the Revolution picked up just two wins and a draw. Looking at the results though, they played away to the Portland Timbers (eventual MLS Cup winners), DC United, Columbus Crew (eventual MLS Cup Finalists), FC Dallas and New York Red Bulls. They picked up home wins against weak Chicago Fire and NYCFC sides. The only home defeat of this set of fixtures was against Vancouver, who are a pretty strong side too. For me, there are no surprises again here. 

Rounding out the end of the season, the Revolution had a moderately easy schedule. Games 21 through 26 were either at home or away to poor opposition, but matchday 28 produced a surprise win away to Toronto FC. Looking closer at the numbers, Jones played just 14 minutes here - so can be given little real credit for the result.

To close the season, games 29 to 34 were played with Jones (from the Montreal game, the 2–1 win against the Red Bulls was without him). These produced some pretty poor results vs weak Philadelphia and Chicago teams, alongside a likely unexpected home loss to Montreal. The season closing away win to NYCFC met expectations also. 

So from briefly reviewing the 2015 fixtures, what have we learned from this exercise? From the calculations, Jones believed that in 2015 he was worth an additional 0.9 points per game. From the fixture list, I can’t see any games where he has won the team additional points on his own.

Maybe the away win to Toronto FC, but he only played 14 minutes. And this is why there are difficulties with looking at points added in soccer. There are so many variables to look at. From thinking about this problem, I have the following:

  • Too few lineup changes in a game (maximum of 6).
  • Low scoring, therefore difficult to look at goal difference with or without.
  • Opposition teams need to be adjusted for their strength.
  • Matches need to be adjusted for location of the game.
  • Your team lineup needs to be adjusted for strength (for example, a second, more important player may have been missing while he was out, therefore influencing the result also).
  • Free rider problem - you could probably put me in the New England team and I’d come out with a positive points added total despite being the worst player on the field.

Considering the nature of MLS having varying levels of player talent within the squad - a player quality metric needs to be created to reasonably assess most of the above. This is something I’m going to try and develop in the future, likely a top-down model similar to that of GoalImpact. 

So to conclude, although Jermaine Jones is a good player, it’s difficult to attribute an extra one point a game to him. There are a variety of factors that need to be considered that I showed above. Sadly for his contract negotiations, this isn’t great news. For New England though, I’m happy that they have recognized his true value for the 2016 season, and hope they can get him back on a reduced deal.