Do you need to win the ‘big games’ to win the title?

There’s a cliché in football that if a club is to win the title then it needs to win the big games. It is taken as a given that you and your rivals will have similar records against those clubs lower in the league, and what differentiates the title-winners from the rest is actually their record against each other.

With the 2013/14 Premier League title race tighter than ever going into the festive period this edge may be even more important. The purpose of this article is to test whether or not the standard cliché holds true and, if so, what lessons the teams vying for top spot might learn from their predecessors.

To test this conventional wisdom, Hit Row Z has analysed data from each of the last 21 Premier League seasons. It has considered the results of the top four teams against one another during each season to see whether or not success in winning the ‘top four mini league’ means silverware come the end of the campaign.

The key findings are as follows:

  • Winning the ‘mini-league’ is not a guarantee of winning the title
  • Only on a little over 50% of occasions (11 of 21) has the team winning the ‘top four mini-league’ gone on to win the title
  • During the last seven Premier League seasons the team winning the top four mini-league has won the title just three times
  • Manchester United have won the mini-league on 6.5 occasions (0.5 has been awarded where there was a tie) yet won a remarkable 13 titles. Liverpool, on the other hand, have won the mini-league on 2.5 occasions, yet are still searching for their maiden Premier League crown.

Figure one: Does winning the ‘top four mini league’ mean title success?

EPL mini league

  • On average, the team winning the league has collected over 11 points from its rivals over the course of the season
  • This is approximately 2 points more than the Premier League runners-up. Interestingly, and somewhat counter-intuitively, the team finishing third in the mini-league has picked up an average of 5.9 points from each of their rivals – one point fewer than the team finishing in fourth.
  • Only five times has a team taken more than 11 points and not won the league (this happened to Liverpool three times, in 1995/96, 1999/00 and 2001/02, where they took 13 points from their rivals but failed to win the title).

So what does that mean for this year’s title challengers?

It is still too early in the season, and the league is far too tight to say with certainty what the top four might look like come May. Moreover, there have only been four games between the current top four (with eight still  to play) meaning it is too premature to draw any cast-iron insights from the current ‘top four mini-league’. However, for those interested, it currently looks like this:

Figure Two: The current ‘Top Four Mini League’

EPL mini league 2014

  • Arsenal and Chelsea currently lead the way with four points apiece, albeit Jose Mourinho’s men have played a game fewer than their London rivals.
  • Perhaps most impressively, though (and notwithstanding the caveats above!) should their form in ‘the big games’ continue, both Chelsea and Manchester City are currently on course to exceed the golden 11-point threshold, which would put them in a strong position to land the title
  • Liverpool have only played two of their rivals so far this season and will be hoping that they can improve on their record of two defeats.

Clearly the analysis above is only preliminary. The top four is fluid and too few games have been played between any permutations of top four, and therefore this analysis could change significantly over the coming weeks.

However, in terms of lessons from Premier League history, perhaps football commentators and analysts place too much emphasis on the maxim that you have to win the games against your rivals to win the title. Plenty of teams have won the title with an inferior record against other sides in the top four.

Besides, judging by the way this season is turning out, with at least five teams genuinely in the hunt for the title and all teams capable of beating each other, the notion of a top four might be an inappropriate proxy anyway.

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