What does it take to survive in the Premier League?

For over half of the teams competing in the Premier League next season, the goal will be simple: do not get relegated. The financial rewards of being in England’s top flight dwarf those of the next rung down on the ladder, and even the series of generous parachute payments are not enough to adequately cushion the blow of relegation beyond one season. And the Championship (and even League One and Two) are packed full of clubs who were sent down from the Premier League, and failed to return.

So, taking an overview of the numbers from the last two decades of 20 team Premier League football, what kind of targets does a team hoping to survive in the Premier League need to set if it is realistically going to stand a chance of succeeding?

Is the “magic 40 point mark” fact or fiction? Managers talk about it, players talk about it, but is 40 points a reasonable target for teams looking to stay in the Premier League?

The data seems to suggest the number may actually be lower than that. In 15 of the last 19 Premier League seasons, the team finishing fourth bottom could theoretically have finished on fewer than 40 points, and still survived.

The lowest points total ever recorded by a team that survived for the following season is 34, by West Brom in 2004/5. This is clearly an exception, but nevertheless, over the last ten seasons, it seems the number of points required to survive has decreased from the early years of the 20 team Premier League.

With the exception of 2010/11, when Wolves and Birmingham went down on 39 points, the team finishing third bottom has tended to score somewhere between 34 – 36 points. If we look at the league table of the season just gone, 13th placed West Ham United are the first team to hit the 40 point threshold – all teams below them failed to reach it.

Yet on the flipside, there have been a handful of instances when even 40 points was not enough. On 3 occasions, a team has reached 40 points, and been relegated anyway – perhaps most incredibly, when West Ham went down in 2002/3 with 42 points.

So 40 points remains a handy shorthand for a total that should guarantee survival. But in truth, most managers will know that 36 and above will probably secure their Premier League status come May 2015.

How many wins should guarantee survival? If a team needs 36+ points to be in contention of surviving in the Premier League, how many wins have sides tended to need to contribute to that total?

When West Brom survived on 34 points, incredibly they managed to do so by winning just six games all season, drawing 16 and losing 16. This is an exceptionally low number of wins to have survived with, but the Baggies did finish last season one place above relegation having recorded only seven wins, the same number as Aston Villa recorded in 2011/12.

By and large however, the data shows us that a team must win somewhere in the region of eight – ten games across a season to realistically fight for survival. Of the 57 relegation slots filled over the course of the last 19 seasons, only 8 have been occupied by teams that have recorded 10 wins.  And a side has never been relegated having recorded 11 wins.

Which is more important – scoring goals or keeping them out? A favourite of commentators in recent years is to identify the lack of attacking prowess to be the key factor as to why a side may be struggling at the foot of the table. The wisdom goes – “to compete in the Premier League, you need goals. This side doesn’t have any, so they are going down”. Does the data back this view up?

Perhaps not. In only one season out of the last 19 has the bottom three teams in the league been the lowest scorers – in the other 18, at least one team (often more than one) scored fewer goals than at least one side in the bottom three, and survived. In 2010/11 relegated Blackpool scored 55 goals – more than 8th placed Fulham and 9th placed Aston Villa managed in the same season. In the season before last, Stoke City survived comfortably in 13th place, having scored just 34 goals all season – less than one per game.

Keeping goals out may actually even be more important than scoring them. In seven of the last 19 seasons no team conceded more goals than any of the bottom three teams in the league – in these years, the leakiest defences went down. Even then, this does not represent anything like a majority, let alone a hard and fast rule.

Conclusions

What does this mean for the forthcoming Premier League season?

The data shows that the commonly accepted myths about survival are just that – myths. By and large Premier League teams have not needed to achieve 40 points to survive, but instead closer to 36. That may sound like a small difference, but in reality it means teams could afford to gain two fewer positive results, and still stand a decent chance of staying up.

The importance of being able to score lots of goals is also overestimated. At the fine margins of survival and relegation, the data suggests an ability to manage specific games and reach ten wins, is far more important than a general capacity to find the opposition net, or protect your own.

Nevertheless, with ten or more sides likely to be looking over their shoulder throughout the campaign, teams may need fewer points and goals to survive than is commonly observed, but that does not make the race to avoid relegation any less competitive.

Trackbacks

  1. […] On average, newly promoted teams (almost!) meet the ‘magic 40’ mark – the 51 teams promoted teams included in our sample averaged a total of 8 points in their first season – as previously demonstrated on HRZ, the average points of the team finishing in 18th position in the league is actually somewhere between 34 and 36 points (read more on what it takes to survive here. […]

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