Dispelling Premier League Myths: End of Season Trends
Thursday, April 1 2021
As we enter the final straight, Premier Injuries has done some number crunching to fill the Premier League shaped holes in our lives. We wanted to identify any data trends that may affect teams heading into this period.
We examined four major areas, and we have hypothesised based on myths and stereotypes that are often associated with the end of the season. So, we decided to investigate to see if there was any truth behind:
- Do teams drop off after reaching the "safe" 40-point mark? (if they ever do!)
- The "summer holiday" effect resulting in a downturn during the final eight games.
- Do teams with "Nothing to Play For" really see an effect on performances?
- Do teams heavily rotate at the end of the season?
This article will explore the first two phenomena that are often discussed when the season is heading towards its final fixtures. We want to see if these seasonal stereotypes hold up to data scrutiny.
Looking at the previous 3-4 seasons, we were able to come to some valuable conclusions concerning these sides' data. These conclusions include league-wide trends and focus on the "Main Team Grouping" that we identify within the Premier League:
- The Title Hunters: Top Two teams fighting for the Premier League.
- European Teams: Those sides in and around the European qualification places.
- Midtable: Teams unlikely/unable to make it into a position that would grant them European football in the following season.
- Relegation battlers: Those who are fighting to stay up.
These groups all have different needs and motivations for their playstyles, and thus it made sense to put them into these groupings. A relegation-threatened side, or one that is in the title hunt, may have players that are prepared to work harder and push through injuries.
MAGIC 40: Do we see a drop off after a team reaches the "safe" 40-point mark?
For our first investigation, we looked at the effect of reaching "Premier League safety". Our inspiration was the story of Watford Football Club. Perennially, the Hornets would start strongly, secure safety, and then enter holiday mode:
2015/16: Reached 37 points after 27 games, only earning an additional eight points more.
2016/17: Lost their last six games of the season after reaching 40 points.
2017/18: Got to safety (GW29) and then earned five from the remaining fixtures.
2018/19: Hit the "safe" 40-point mark early (GW27), then went on to earn 10 points from 11 games, including three consecutive defeats to end the season.
In Premier League vocabulary, there is the hallowed "40 points'' which is seen as the traditional safety net in terms of a team's ability to avoid the drop. However, in terms of this being the actual marker point, the BBC conducted a fantastic investigation into this phenomena. They looked into the likelihood of a team staying up from their point totals and concluded that the worshipful 40 points was, in fact, outdated, "having been the threshold for survival just once in the last 16 years."
Below, the table from the BBC shows that once you reach the 36-point mark, you are more than likely to stay up.
Thumbing through the annals of seasons gone. In 2002/03, West Ham set the record for the highest points total for a relegated side (42). In Premier League history, only two other teams have finished in the Bottom Three with 40 points. These were Sunderland in 1996/97 and Bolton Wanderers in 1997/98. So, historically speaking, 43 points should be considered the best lowest points tally. But, because the "Safety Net" idea is a psychological one based around the mythological 40-point mark, we thought we would follow suit.
Our investigation found that 71% of teams will continue to perform at the same level or above even after securing their top-flight status. In the "Title Hunters" category, Liverpool (2019/20) was an incredibly anomalous performance. In all the other seasons, the sides in First or Second position actually finished with the strongest PPG during the run-in.
Down the table, those with the most potential for a downturn in overall PPG are those sides placed in 7th-9th. These teams experienced a loss in PPG and averaged eight place drop (vs Rest of the League): Liverpool, Everton, and Arsenal. You have been warned!
There seems to be value, and potential for a significant upturn, for those teams positioned in 15th-18th. We saw an average increase of 7 places and a higher overall PPG vs Rest of the League, so Burnley, Brighton, Newcastle, and Fulham could all be potential risers.
Only once, in 2017/18, has the bottom side (West Bromwich Albion) taken their Points Per Game to above 1.0 and finished outside the Bottom Two. This basically writes off Sheffield United and this season's incarnation of West Brom, who will do well to exceed their current 0.62 PPG.
WE'RE ALL GOING ON A SUMMER HOLIDAY: Do teams suffer a downturn after the International Break?
In this investigation, we changed methodology by looking at a game week rather than a points total being the motivating factor in a change of output.
Another Premier League argument that is often discussed within the football community is the fact that many teams appear to lose focus as they approach the end of the season. Sheffield United in 2019/20 is a good example: having already achieved their goals, they took their foot off the gas… Smaller sides fight hard throughout, and following a long campaign, their focus may have already shifted onto planning for next season. However, as with all of these discussions, there could be several influencing factors.
Looking at Gameweeks 30-38 and comparing it to the first 29 rounds of the season, we found that, first and foremost, the data seemed relatively stable across the whole of the league. The PPG increased, teams do score more, but on the flip side, they also concede a greater number of goals during this period.
However, breaking it down into specific groups. The Title Hunters (Top Two) push on a fair bit. They earn more PPG towards the end of the season; they score a lot more and concede only slightly more than before. The push for a title seems to bring out the best in these teams as they move up from 2.43 PPG onto an impressive 2.51 PPG. What is also enticing is that these sides score a lot more, with 0.36 goals per game. The teams maintain a high-quality defence, although let in 0.04 more goals per game. But the Title Hunters keep focusing and find another level with the title within reach.
The data below shows that the teams vying for European positions are the ones with drop off in some data. Their PPG goes down, as does their goalscoring. But their goals conceded stays relatively stable.
This could be due to these teams focusing on defensive fortitude to cement their places as the season draws to a close. Some managers play more like Mourinho than they might care to admit. There could be many reasons, but the data shows that the European hopefuls are cagier when it gets to the "business end" of the campaign.
Mid Table teams remain relatively unaffected. They have a slightly higher Points Per Game from GW30 onwards with a marginally improved goals per game (0.1) ratio during this period. There is also some improvement from their defence with more steely performances.
There are no surprises, though, that the greatest drop off is witnessed within the relegation-threatened teams. Quite often, there are teams in 19th or 20th place who, on paper, have a mathematical ability to stay up, but the reality is that by GW30, they are "relegated already". This is very much reflected in the data: there is a downturn in PPG for these teams, but what is most pronounced is the defensive and offensive data drop-offs from these sides. In the remaining gameweeks, these sides score 0.14 fewer goals per game and concede 0.27 more goals per game.
You can watch the accompanying video on the Premier Injuries YouTube channel here:
We hope you enjoyed the first part of our investigation into the end of season trends. Make sure to check out Part Two, where we discuss what happens when teams have "nothing to play for" and how much rotation affects team selection.