Jack: A statistical look at 'season defining' matches in BPL

Kristian Jack
10/6/2013 12:54:41 PM
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After a loss at Chelsea on the opening weekend of the season, Hull City manager Steve Bruce gave a frank and intelligent response to the defeat.

"It was always going to be difficult here. Our season will be defined by games like next week, no disrespect to Norwich of course."

Hull went on to beat Norwich 1-0 and Bruce will have been able to mark a big three points in the column of 'season defining matches'.

Bruce hasn't spoken publicly about just how many of these matches his team faces, but if he did he'd probably say 24.

In the last four Premier League seasons, seven teams have always finished in the top eight. United and City from Manchester, Chelsea, Arsenal and Tottenham from London and Liverpool and Everton from Merseyside. Only two teams in the past four years (Aston Villa of 09-10 and Newcastle of 11-12) have cracked the top seven and even in those years, Liverpool or Everton still finished in the top eight.

The fact that not all of the 'super seven' can win the league is irrelevant to teams below them. All seven of them are seen on a different level to the others and it will not be surprising at all to see them fill the top seven spots in the Premier League when it ends on May 11th, 2014, just as they did last season.

These seven teams are the elite and although the other teams will pick points off them on a regular basis they are not points that should be expected often and do not accurately define their success long-term.

Teams like Hull know any points gained against the 'super seven' are an important bonus and, subsequently, points against the other 12 teams, let's call them the 'decisive dozen', are essential.

There are, of course, clear divisions of talent inside the group of teams outside the bottom seven but the gap in quality is not what it used to be. Football managers often drop cliches into their answers such as, 'fine lines' and 'small margins', when it comes to separating success and failure, and it isn't difficult to see why.

Last season just 13pts separated 8th place West Brom, who everyone described as having a great season, and relegated Wigan Athletic.

West Brom finished with 49pts, 35 achieved against the 'decisive dozen' and an impressive 14 against the 'super seven'.

Wigan finished with 36pts, 30 achieved against the 'decisive dozen' and just 5 against the 'super seven'.

This means in 24 of the 38 matches (almost two thirds of the season-63%) West Brom gained just five more points versus the weaker teams in the league than a team now playing outside of the Premier League.

From this we can draw a few conclusions. There will be some who feel Wigan got relegated because they didn't get enough points from the top seven but, in fact, the truth is they didn't get enough against the 'decisive dozen', and neither did West Brom.

Let us take a closer look at the last four Premier League seasons.

These tables are in the order of the non 'super seven' teams and how they performed in 'decisive dozen' games. Next to their point total in those games is their point totals against the super seven.

Aston Villa 48-16
Birmingham 41-9
Stoke 40-7
Fulham 34-12
Bolton 34-5
Sunderland 32-12
West Ham 31-4
Wolves 29-9
Wigan 26-10
Hull 20-10*
Burnley 19-11*
Portsmouth 16-3*

*- relegated

It is no surprise to see the bottom three teams had the worst records in 'decisive dozen' matches (these three teams were worse than the rest by some margin) but it is a surprise that two of them were better than many against 'super seven' sides.

Fulham 44-5
Sunderland 35-12
Stoke 35-11
Bolton 35-11
Newcastle 34-12
Blackburn 34-9
Wigan 33-9
WBA 31-16
Birmingham 30-9*
Aston Villa 29-19
Blackpool 28-11*
Wolves 26-14
West Ham 24-9*

Unlike 2009/10 when 31 points would have been enough to survive, the 2010/11 season was very competitive at the bottom with two teams being relegated on 39pts. Trends to notice here are how relegated teams fail to get more than 30pts in the first column and the substantial drop off Birmingham and West Ham had in those totals from the season previous. They were relegated because of their inability to get more 'decisive dozen' points, not points against the 'super seven' which are actually admirable. Another thing to look at is how a team like Aston Villa fared in 'decisive dozen' games. Villa finished 9th that year with 48pts but were very average in games not against the 'super seven' which pointed to an obvious regression coming if they didn't evaluate themselves properly while preparing for the 2011/12 season.

Newcastle 50-15
WBA 40-7
Fulham 39-13
Norwich 39-8
Swansea 35-12
Sunderland 35-10
Wigan 31-12
Aston Villa 31-7
Stoke 29-16
Bolton 29-7*
Blackburn 23-8*
QPR 22-15
Wolves 22-3*

Like West Ham and Birmingham in 10/11, Bolton and Blackburn were relegated because a significant drop off in points gained in column one to the season previous, both slipping under 30.
Villa didn't bolster their squad the way they needed to and were very fortunate to survive in 2011/12, gaining just two more points in 'decisive dozen' games (12 less in column two) and avoiding relegation by that same margin. A look at the performances of Wigan, Stoke and QPR also pointed to some serious concerns heading forward as they gained far too many points against 'super seven' teams than their results in 'decisive dozen' matches suggested they should.

West Ham 40-6
Swansea 38-8
Fulham 37-6
Aston Villa 36-5
WBA 35-14
Stoke 34-8
Newcastle 33-8
Sunderland 31-8
Wigan 30-5*
Norwich 29-15
Southampton 29-12
Reading 23-5*
QPR 18-7*

Such concerns for Wigan, Stoke and QPR did materialize. All three teams saw their point totals in 'super seven' games drop by 50 per cent or more and two of them were relegated. Stoke survived after gaining more points in column one but they still had their worst season of their five in the Premier League. Sunderland, Norwich and Southampton ended last season in a similar spot to Wigan, Stoke and QPR. Norwich and Southampton, in particular, scored far too many points against 'super seven' teams than their record in 'decisive dozen' matches suggested.

Southampton's imbalance comes from a change of manager in January. Under new boss Mauricio Pochettino they claimed 10pts from just six 'super seven' games but in the summer he rightfully spoke about the team's poor performances against teams in the bottom half last season and then spent money on his squad to address such an issue.

No team knows more about small margins than Norwich City. After a loss at home to Aston Villa last May they had just 38pts from 36 matches and the Carrow Rd faithful feared relegation. The Canaries would go on to win their last two matches and finished 11th in the table, albeit just eight points ahead of Wigan.

Last season Chris Hughton's side beat Arsenal, Manchester City, Manchester United and didn't lose at all to Tottenham, yet still flirted with relegation because they were a worse team for 63% of the season than Wigan. Like Pochettino, Hughton recognized his team needed strengthening, and spent over 25 million pounds this summer on new players.

He will be aware that in the last four seasons any side that finishes with less than 30pts in column one and 10pts or more in column two goes on to score less in column two the next year, forcing the team to either improve in 'decisive dozen' games or get relegated. Norwich fit this mold and, even with investment in the summer are not a side that should expect to get 15pts from 'super seven' games this season. They simply must gain more than 29pts than their 24 other matches if they want to maintain survival and six points from four of those matches so far is a good start.

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