In this article, Alex Mathers looks to crunch the numbers behind Leeds United’s terrible away form in London and further afar…
Like Marcelo’s pitch-side pacing and Phil Hay’s GOOOOAAAAAAAAAAAALLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLL tweets, one thing that Leeds fans have been able to depend on over the past three seasons is that the team don’t perform well when they play in London.
“The curse,” as it’s become known, started with a 1–1 draw with Millwall in September 2018 and only “ended” when the side won 2–1 at Craven Cottage in March earlier this year. In the intervening twelve games played in the capital, Leeds lost eleven times and claimed just a single point from a 1–1 draw with Brentford in February 2020.
But it’s not just London clubs which Leeds have struggled against when playing far from home. The last time the side won at Brighton, believe it or not, was in November 2009 — a whole eleven seasons ago. Since then, the two teams have played seven times on the south coast and Brighton have won all but one of the matches. The last three seasons have also seen Leeds succumb to Ipswich and Cardiff at their grounds and run out a disappointing 2–2 draw at the Liberty Stadium at the beginning of the 2018/19 season.
There was a sense of inevitability before Brighton and Leeds’ most recent encounter a few weeks back, and sure enough, Leeds didn’t disappoint. After the game had finished, I was mulling over the result and these shocking records in my mind when I began to wonder — just how bad is Leeds’ long distance away form? And how does it compare to other teams? If only to get my mind off the game, I decided to delve into the data and investigate.
I started by taking all the away games Leeds have played in the league since the start of the 2018/19 season and splitting them into two groups: “near fixtures” — those played less than 150 miles (as the crow flies) from Elland Road — and “far fixtures” — those played more than 150 miles from home.
Why 150 miles? Well first, a drive of this distance on the motorway would take you just over two hours: a sensible cut-off between a “long” and a “short” trip. Second, because Vicarage Road is about 155 miles from Elland Road, so choosing this number therefore meant all the London clubs neatly fitted into the latter group. And third, because it’s a nice round number. Stop asking questions!
The graphic below shows Leeds’ opponents in away league fixtures since the start of the 2018/19 season. Clubs in green have grounds which are less than 150 miles from Elland Road, while those in pink are more than 150 miles away:
Next, I analysed the results for matches in each group, noting both the number of points which were available from the games and the points which Leeds managed to claim.
With these two figures I was able to calculate a basic metric — the percentage of points gained — for both “near” and “far” fixtures, allowing Leeds’ performance in the two groups of away matches to be meaningfully compared by simply subtracting one number from the other.
The results won’t come as much of a surprise for fans but are staggering nonetheless. From the 23 games played at long distance opponents over the past three seasons, Leeds have managed to claim only 30.4% of the available points. During the same time period, Leeds have played 40 games at teams whose grounds are closer to home and, by contrast, have earnt 69.2% of the points on offer. That’s a huge difference of 38.7 percentage points and confirms what most of us would probably have expected.
But how does this compare to other teams? Does a combination of motorway monotony, clammy coaches and dodgy service station lunches do for all sides in preventing them from playing at their best? Just how special are Leeds in this respect?
Thankfully for you, dear reader, I found the time and mustered the know-how over the past couple of weeks to get an answer to this question. With my ruler and compass in hand, I worked out the distance travelled by every team which has played in the Football League over the past three seasons in every one of their away league games. Then, I calculated each team’s performance in “near” and “far” matches, again using 150 miles away from the team’s home ground as a threshold and the percentage of points achieved as the measure.
Using the percentage point difference between the two groups of fixtures, I ranked each team in a (non-European) super league alongside all other sides which have competed in the Football League over the past three seasons. I excluded teams that played five long distance matches or fewer for sample size reasons — a special shout-out to Birmingham City though, as the only team not to have played a single match more than 150 miles away from their ground over the past three seasons!
A scan of the resulting league table shows some interesting results. We can see that the majority of all clubs (45 out of 80) have performed better in short- rather than long-distance games.
In the middle of the table, we find teams which have broadly performed the same no matter where they’re playing away from home. In 46th place lie Watford — the kings of away match consistency — who show a mere 0.3 percentage point difference between their form in “near” and “far” fixtures. Only a few league places either side of Watford lie two of the Premier League big guns, Spurs and Manchester City, each of whom show similar results: both teams have a percentage point difference smaller than five.
Propping up the bottom of the table are teams that, generally, have performed much better the further they’ve played from home. At the very bottom, in 80th place, are Doncaster Rovers, who’ve claimed an impressive 63.9% of the available points in their “far” fixtures (the fourth highest in the league) while only achieving 34% closer to home, giving them a percentage point difference of 29.9. In 68th place, we find Liverpool, who’ve enjoyed the best long-distance form of any team in the Football League over the past three seasons, picking up 77.4% of the available points from these games.
Where Do Leeds Fit In?
So, Leeds must be at the top then? Right you are; second only to Salford City, who’ve picked up a fantastically dismal two point haul from the 24 available to them in long-distance away games across the last three seasons. With a much more respectable 54.5% of points achieved nearer to home, their percentage point difference comes in at a whopping 46.2.
So there you have it, folks. It’s fair to say that there has been something special about Leeds’ lopsided away form in recent years. Following a buoyant end to this season and recent wins at Fulham and Southampton, could “the curse” — not just of London clubs but all long-distance opponents — finally be lifted? We’ll find out next season.