We’re in a new age of relegation battles
A lot is made, in football, of what is mathematically possible. Tottenham, earlier this season, could ‘mathematically’ have caught Chelsea in the title race; teams forever have a ‘mathematical’ hope of survival; it was, at one stage during their dark winter struggles, ‘mathematically’ possible for Leicester to still win the league.
Unfortunately, cutting the options down to what’s realistic cuts down the number of stories and hope that the media and fans can have. Most of the time, in order to retain the hope that there can still be an interesting title race, for example, it’s perfectly reasonable to say “leave me alone, dream killers!” to the death-knell tolling Bringers of Realism. Football is more about hope than it is being correct (as a fan, at least).
However, when the season has run its course and consigned to the past, realism can no longer do its harm. For relegation battles, mathematical safety is not necessarily a good narrative method. Leicester’s unbelievable, and likely unrepeatable, Great Escape was achieved with points per game rate of 2.44, picking up 22 in 9. The Greatest Escape there ever didn’t come from mathematical possibility.
Given that the vast majority of teams aren’t Leicester, a ‘realistic’ rate of 2 points per game seems reasonable when looking at the bottom of the table. 2 points per game are roughly top 4 level, and teams looking over their shoulders at the infernos of relegation would kill for top 4 level form. 2 points per game is both realistic and simple to use.
We saw a few weeks ago in these pages how the point at which a team attains ‘realistic safety’ tells the story of West Brom and Watford’s seasons – attain a reasonable points tally and then have a poor end to the season, slipping down the table beyond, perhaps, the point they deserved to be – better than when they achieved ‘mathematical safety’.
Based on the points at which teams have achieved realistic safety in the past decade, I can give you some advice.
Don’t gain realistic safety in the last two weeks of the season (with one game to go, or after the final day).
There have been eight instances from the 2007/08 season onwards where teams have gained realistic safety on the last day of the season. Five of these sides (so, 62.5%) were relegated the following year, and one team was relegated the year after that. Taking a three-year period after the initial bad league-finish as having ‘survived’ it, the other two final-day-safety sides (2007/08 Fulham and 2008/09 Sunderland) have now both been relegated.
Three years is used as a cut-off as after that time there will likely have been enough squad turnover that it is no longer really the same team.
If you achieve realistic safety after 37 games of the season, you have (marginally) better chances. Of the fifteen instances since 2007/08, five went down the following year (or just under 42%). Only six, or 40%, ‘survived’ the three-year window.
Both Crystal Palace and Swansea achieved realistic safety after 37 games in 2016/17.
Getting realistic safety at 36 games gives sides a 67% chance of surviving the immediate three-year period, although two of the fifteen instances were relegated the following year, that seems to be the final true ‘danger’ placing.
This isn’t to say that teams who attain realistic safety earlier than this are not at risk. Out of the 27 relegations since 2008/09, five had finished the previous season with realistic safety achieved sometime before 36 matches, and these were dotted around the course of their seasons.
2008/09 Newcastle went down after having gained realistic safety after 33 games the season before; 2009/10 Portsmouth perhaps shouldn’t count, given their troubles, but they reached realistic safety the season before after 35; 2010/11 Birmingham went down after reaching realistic safety after 29. 2011/12 Bolton were relegated after having achieved realistic safety after 34 games the season before; and finally, 2014/15 Hull went down after getting to realistic safety after 35 games the previous year.
You may notice something about these though: it was far more likely to happen in the first half of the previous decade than the latter.
We’ve moved into a new era of relegations.
From 2008/09 to 2012/13 there were fifteen relegations (obviously). As many of these relegations came from newly promoted teams (four) as they did from teams who had attained realistic safety before the 36-game mark the previous season.
In the relegations from 2013/14 to 2016/17, only one side (that 14/15 Hull side) were relegated after having gained realistic safety the previous season before the 36-game mark, while six of the twelve relegations in those seasons were of newly promoted sides.
In fact, the rate at which newly promoted sides went straight back down almost doubled, from 26.67% in the first period to 50% in the most recent.
Something else strange has happened too. From 2007/08 to 2011/12 (the seasons for the relegations of 2008/09 to 2012/13 to look at their previous seasons’ realistic safety mark), seven sides only achieved realistic safety on the last day of the season. Four achieved it after 37 games.
From 2012/13 to 2015/16, only one side got to realistic safety on the final day of the season, while eleven did it after 37 games – and if this season, 2016/17, is added into the mix then this rises to thirteen in five seasons. This is largely driven by 2012/13 and 2013/14, the two seasons contributing seven of these sides, but the trend is still clear.
We’re in a new era of Premier League relegation battles – fewer last day of the season battles and more promoted teams going straight back down. Huddersfield, Brighton, and Newcastle may wish that 2017/18 returns to where we were half a decade ago.
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