How important are ‘relegation six-pointers’?

Hit Row Z has previously challenged the cliché that if a club is to win the title then it needs to win the big games against its rivals. Based on data from the previous 21 Premier League seasons HRZ was able to demonstrate that plenty of teams have won the title despite having an inferior record (relative to their rivals) against other sides in the top four.

In this article, the focus is on the opposite end of the table – just how important are ‘relegation six-pointers’? To test this notion, Hit Row Z has analysed data from each of the last 21 Premier League seasons. It has considered the results of the bottom five teams against one another during that season to see whether or not success in ‘winning’ or coming ‘runner-up’ in that ‘bottom five mini league’ actually translates to Premier League survival.

The key findings are as follows:

Performing well in the ‘mini-league’ is not a guarantee of survival

  • On 14 occasions the winners of the ‘bottom five mini league’ have managed to survive – on eight occasions the winners of the mini league finished fifth bottom in the Premier League (on the remaining six, they finished fourth bottom).
  • However, in seven instances the team winning the ‘bottom five mini league’ has been relegated, including, most recently, Bolton Wanderers in 2011/12, where they managed to amass a staggering 19 points against their rivals only to finish inside the bottom three.
  • Perhaps most significantly, in 17 seasons out of 21, at least one side finishing in the bottom three of the Premier League secured enough points against their rivals to finish in the top two of the ‘mini league’ yet were still relegated – that is, this didn’t translate to a 16th or 17th place finish in the Premier League. This is the critical observation.

Nevertheless, performing poorly in the ‘mini league’ does not bode well

  • On 16 occasions, the team finishing bottom of the mini league has been relegated. Poor performance against the other weak teams in the Premier League is likely to lead to relegation.
  • On average, the two teams in the bottom five that manage to stave off the threat of relegation tend to secure over 12 points against their rivals
  • This is only marginally greater than the points amassed by the side finishing third bottom of the Premier League against their rivals in the bottom five (11.9 points) – the line between success and failure is a very fine one.
  • On average, the team finishing bottom of the league and second bottom of the league have secured 8.4 and 9 points respectively against their rivals.

While these averages can be used to provide high-level rules of thumb, it is interesting that over the course of Premier League history, 20 of the 64 relegated teams (four teams were relegated in the 1994/95 season) have scored more than 12 points against their rivals yet still lost their Premier League status.

What does that mean for this year’s relegation battlers?

At the mid-point in the season less than ten points separate the bottom ten sides. It is very tight at the bottom and, while the likes of Sunderland, West Ham and Crystal Palace are struggling, it is still too early to tell who might occupy the relegation spots come the end of the season.

However, for the purpose of this article, the outcomes of the games played between the current bottom five to date this season are presented in the following table:

6 pointers

  • Fulham and Crystal Palace currently lead the way in this ‘mini-league’ with nine points apiece, albeit the Cottagers have played one game more than their London rivals.
  • On a very crude ‘points per game’ measure, only Crystal Palace appear on target to pass the 12-point threshold. However, it is worth noting that the three wins they’ve recorded against their rivals to date were all at home – and that their one reverse was a 4-1 hammering at Fulham.
  • Sunderland are the only side not to record a victory against their rivals. Fans of the Black Cats will be hoping that Gus Poyet can use the January window to revitalise his misfiring squad and turn things around in the second half of the season. As noted above, the team finishing bottom of the mini-league tends to get relegated.

The analysis above is intended to explore the extent to which games between the bottom five are important in determining the destiny of those teams – just how important are these so-called six-pointers?

Clearly the read across to this season is a work in progress – we don’t know who the bottom five will be and there have only been a limited number of fixtures played between the current bottom five to date.

However, the analysis of the previous 21 Premier League seasons suggests the following:

  • The team that performs the worst against the bottom five and finishes bottom of the mini-league tends to get relegated – this might cause some concern for Sunderland fans, based on the season to date.
  • Performing well against the rest of the bottom five can improve your chances of staying in the division, although there are no guarantees and there are plenty of examples of teams being relegated despite this good form.
  • The reason for this is that the bottom half of the Premier League tends to be extremely tight, and the notion of a six-pointer is either (a) redundant or (b) should be applied to matches between all teams outside the more established top seven.

These are not surprising conclusions – ultimately the Premier League is very competitive and survival depends upon the accumulation of fine margins won and lost against all teams, not just those that end up in the bottom five.

Want to read more? See this article on whether championship challenges need to win the ‘big games’ to win the title.

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