Having outed myself last week as a relegation-fancier, I thought I’d take a nuts-and-bolts statistical look at recent relegation race history, and how this season might or might not fit in. I’ve chosen the turn of the century, the 1999/2000 season, as an arbitrary starting point. It’s a decent distance away from the start of the Premier League, allowing the financial changes to have settled in, yet a good long way from the present, thus providing plenty of data.
Relegation races usually come into clear focus with about a third of the season gone. From 1999/2000 on, we find that after 13 weeks, 46 of the 51 eventually relegated clubs were in the bottom six, 15th place or lower. So if you want to know if you’re in serious relegation danger, that’s a pretty good indicator. The other five clubs were in 14th, 13th, 12th, 11th and eighth. (The eighth-place team was Middlesbrough 2008/9, who won only twice the rest of the year.)
This year fits the pattern. Thirteen weeks in, all five of Sunderland, Middlesbrough, Swansea City, Hull City and Crystal Palace were in the bottom six. Boro were later to spend one week in 13th and one in 14th, and Crystal Palace recently had a two-week fling with 12th, but otherwise everyone’s stayed 15th or below since then.
Then there’s the point totals. We all know about the magic 40 points, and in almost every case, that’ll do it for you. West Ham United were famously relegated in 2002/03 with 42 points, and in the first years of the Premier League several clubs went down with 40 or more. As we’ll see, in general it’s somewhat lower than 40, but of course you want a margin for error.
By the way, last season, a few weeks after Sam Allardyce joined Sunderland, he predicted that 38 points would mean safety. Sunderland clinched survival in the next-to-last round on exactly 38 points. That’s why he’s Big Sam. It won’t surprise you that he reminded the media of his prediction.
Let’s look then at the point totals required to survive since 1999/2000. Here are the points gained by the 18th-place team, the best of the relegated clubs: 33, 34, 36, 42, 33, 33, 34, 38, 36, 34, 30, 39, 36, 36, 33, 35, 37. So the 40-point total is almost always absolute assurance level. In fact, in 13 of the past 17 years, 37 points have been enough for survival. The average points for the 18th place team are 35.2, so the average survival total for that period is only 36 points.
We can’t tell exactly how this year’s numbers will finish, but we’re in the ballpark. Hull City have 34 points, and if they take one point from their games at Palace and home to Spurs (a not unreasonable outcome), they’ll hit 35, which means survival will be the average 36. We might be a touch over the average this year – maybe on what we’ll call the Allardyce Constant, 38 – but probably not too far.
We can also measure how many teams were involved in the race. Let’s look at the tables with five games to go in the season, and see how many teams were within six points of the 18th-place team at that time. (The Premier League history site classifies the tables by date, so occasionally a team will have played a match more or less. In each case I went with the week in which the majority of the teams near the bottom had played 33 times.)
For the 17-year period, the league has averaged 5.5 teams on the cusp with five games to play. In 2010/11, there were a massive ten clubs within six points of 18th. The low number is only three, which has happened twice, most recently last year, when Villa were down, and it was two from Norwich, Newcastle and Sunderland. This year? It was six, again very close to the average.
What about relegation races going to the final day? Last year, with only three teams close with five games to go, it was no surprise that the race was settled before Survival Sunday. But more often there’s something to play for. In ten of the previous 17 seasons, at least two teams had their fate undecided going into the final weekend. The most remarkable final day was that mammoth 2010/11, where five teams (Wigan, Blackpool, Birmingham, Wolves and Blackburn) could still either stay up or go down. The 2004/05 finish was also unusual: it was the only year in this period where no team’s fate had been sealed before the final week.
Again, we can’t be sure quite yet, but this race has a good chance to go down to the wire too. If Sunderland have awakened enough to get at least a point at home to Swansea, or Hull manage a win at Palace, nothing will be decided until the final weekend. (If Swansea win and Hull draw, the Tigers are nominally in the race, but goal difference seems insurmountable.)
Our next focus is on promoted teams, teams who joined the league at the beginning of the season. What percentage of newly-promoted teams survive? It’s higher than I expected. In our period, a total of 32 of 51 promoted teams survived the first year, a solid 62.7%. The percentage is even greater in recent years; since 2008/9, the survival rate is 66.7%. Three times in our period, all three promoted teams stayed up, most recently in 2011/12 (QPR, Norwich, Swansea). There was no year in which all three promoted teams went down.
Should Swansea or Crystal Palace go down, two of three will survive, exactly at 66.7% again. If it’s Hull, only one will have survived, for only the second time in the past nine years.
Now let’s look at non-promoted teams that get relegated. The average previous season rank of a non-promoted team that gets relegated is almost exactly 14th place, which is higher than you might expect. Several teams who finished as high as 12th went down the next year, which tells you how crowded the middle of the league is these days. If you just escaped, you’re in trouble: eight out of 17 clubs that finished 17th the prior season got relegated the next. On the other side, four teams that finished in the top ten actually got relegated the next season: Birmingham City (ninth in 2009/10, relegated 2010/11), Reading (eighth in 2007/08, relegated 2008/09), West Ham (seventh in 2002/03, relegated 2003/04 with 42 points) and Ipswich (fifth in 2000/01, relegated 2002/03 with 36 points).
This year another 17th-place club from the prior season got relegated, Sunderland. That makes nine of 18 in that category, exactly 50%. Should Swansea go down, they’ll be a 12th-place team from the previous season, and the place average would be (17 + 12)/ 2 = 14.5, very close to the average of 14. If it’s Palace, who finished 14th, the place average would be a little higher.
Now a brief look at the profiles of the relegated teams themselves, goals for and goals against. The average relegated team went down having scored 36.84 goals, with a range from 20 (Derby County 2007/08) to 55 (Blackpool 2010/11). So the average goals per game is .97. The average goals against for the season is 67.73, with a range from 51 (Hull City 2014/15) to 89 (Derby County 2007/8 again). The average goals against per game is thus 1.78.
And now we finally start to get some unusual numbers. The average goals scored for the current bottom three is .83/game, which would be the third lowest in the period. Even better, the average goals against for the current bottom three is 1.48/game, which would be the very lowest since 1999/2000. This despite the fact that goals per game across the league this year are currently the fifth highest in our period.
The goals scored culprits are Sunderland and Middlesbrough, and the goals against culprits are Middlesbrough. Big time. As we know, Boro’s strategy under Aitor Karanka was not to concede, because he knew the stats, and very reasonably concluded that good defences don’t get relegated. It’ll be no solace at all that Boro are in fact on pace to register the very best defence for a relegated team in this period, 1.33 GA per game. They’re also on pace to become the first team in 29 years (Watford 1987/88) to finish in the bottom three despite a top-half defence.
So summing up, the profile of one particular relegated team is very unusual, the relegation race itself pretty normal. But let’s face it: for supporters and players of the teams involved, there’s no such thing as a normal relegation race. The emotions run too deep. After the loss to Chelsea locked the door, Ben Gibson, Boro through and through, was quoted as saying: “That was the lowest point of my career…no, in fact it’s the lowest point of my life.”
Yes indeed. Next week we’ll have a look how the various newspapers and fan outlets have dealt with this year’s relegation race, and see the range of thoughts and feelings that are endured through that most harrowing of experiences.