The Premier League is notoriously hard to predict; a flu, bad lasagna, blown calls, January’s transfer window or an American/Arab owner can change the outcome of a season. Looking at the table this soon seems to be utterly mad but a study of previous seasons after eleven games seems to point at clues that could translate to this season. There are certain details that stand out.
A team’s location on the table after eleven games is off by an average +- 2.8 places* from where it will be at the end of the season (*based on the last five seasons). With that data, an obvious temptation is to assume a team in the middle of the table is safe from relegation and the rigors of Champions League football. The teams in the middle of the table, however, experience the most fluctuation. For example, 2012/13 season Arsenal and the 2008/09 season Middleborough were both in eighth place after this number of games- Arsenal ended their season in fourth place but Middleborough were relegated.
While the 2.8 fluctuation average is useful in a general sense, averaging a team’s movement based on their position after eleven games gives a greater sense of how much an early season can tell us. The middle of the table experiences great differences, while the bottom and top of the table mostly sees stagnation.
As the season moves forward the average fluctuation gets smaller and smaller but already there are trends. At the bottom of the league there isn’t too much movement. The nineteenth placed team (currently Sunderland) seems cursed and the twentieth team looks like it averages a great escape every year. Crystal Palace fans shouldn’t start celebrating. Five seasons ago, Tottenham sat bottom of the table but moved up a staggering twelve position to land in eighth place and because of that fantastic feat (the coach changed) the statistics have been off. The team on the bottom after eleven games has stayed on the bottom three of the last four years.
Here is what the bottom three teams have looked like after eleven games compared to the end of the season for the past five years. Red denotes relegation.
There is usually one pretender in the bottom three after eleven games. Of the thirty teams, who have sat in the bottom three at this point in the last five years, only seven (an average of 1.4 teams a year) have avoided the drop. Condemning Crystal Palace and Sunderland to relegation doesn’t seem too outlandish and to be fair, many pundits have already predicted both to drop. Fulham, on the other-hand, are in the bottom three but sit tied on points with two other teams. If Fulham do escape relegation, which most would expect, it would be the fourth time in five years that only one team was able to escape the bottom three after eleven games. This could just be an overuse of data, any Premier League fan can point out that two teams usually have bad seasons from beginning to end every year.
The top of the table is very interesting. Looking at a larger amount of data shows that in the previous 10 seasons no team outside the top three has gone on to win the premier league. This compliments the 2.8 average in table variation and makes a ridiculous claim, “the title race is between Southampton, Liverpool and Arsenal” seem a little less preposterous.
Arsenal fans may just be justified in being excited this season because the leader at this point in the race has won the title seven of the last ten years. The title is a bit far off but Gooners should take comfort in knowing that a team in pole position after 11 games hasn’t placed lower than 3rd.
But before Londoners start getting Arsenal 2013/2014 tattoo across their chest they need to remember that in previous years Arsenal hasn’t challenged for the title, they’ve challenged Tottenham (and others) for fourth place. Likewise, Southampton have never been in such a promising position and Liverpool, while looking like the lion of old, have a lot of work to do between now and April.
There is also a precedent of one team in the top five dropping off and finishing outside of European football qualification. Only once has the top five teams stayed in the top five and that was in the 2009/2010 season- where Man City and Tottenham switched 4th and 5th places. Examples from previous years-
03/04 Birmingham City sat in 4th but finished in 10th.
04/05 Bolton were in 4th place but finished in 6th.
05/06 Wigan were (5 points clear of third place Arsenal) but finished the season in 10th place.
06/07 Portsmouth were fourth but finished the season in 9th.
07/08 Man City were third but finished the season in 8th.
Manchester United, Arsenal and Chelsea have been remarkably consistent these last ten years. The data that points to a Liverpool, Southampton and Arsenal title charge could be based on there being three top teams that consistently produce the same results year after year. Chelsea, Manchester United and Manchester City could easily end up contesting the title while Southampton, Arsenal and Liverpool battling mid-table.
Here’s is what the past five seasons top four looks like after eleven games next to thirty-eight games. Green means the side won the title and blue denotes UEFA Champions League qualification.
* In the 2011/12 season, Tottenham Hotspur didn’t qualify for Champions League football because Chelsea, as returning winners, gained automatic entry.
Currently there are only five points separating the seventh placed team and the top team and looking at past campaigns. The top seven teams all have at least twenty points. Twenty points from eleven games (an average return of 1.8 per game) is a common tally for a top four sides- 1.8 points in 38 games is almost a total of 70 points. Seventy points might not be enough this year, last year, Arsenal were fourth with 73 points, but it’s competitive. Certain teams, like both Manchester clubs, are expected to improve as this season progresses but they don’t have a history of breaking into the top four, they’re history is getting in and staying in the top four as soon as possible.
While the data doesn’t point out any clear winners or losers, it does provide some fun for the stats freak. This season might rearrange the trends of what can be decided (if anything) after eleven games but it also might establish them as rules. On May 11th, 2014 we will know for sure.
Here are the full tables from eleven games to the final game of the season.