How to avoid relegation from the Premier League – A statistical analysis

The following is a statistical analysis of relegated and promoted teams in the Premier League over the last 17 seasons.

All stats below go back to the beginning of the 20 team era in the Premier League, which began with the 1995/96 campaign. Pertaining to this season it makes worrying reading for Southampton, QPR, Norwich and Reading fans and encouraging reading for West Ham fans, as I’ll explain later.

On average, relegated sides during this period have finished with 37 goals scored, 67 goals conceded, and a goal difference of -30. The most goals ever scored by a relegated side were Blackpool’s 55 in the 2010/11 campaign. The fewest goals conceded by a relegated side were Birmingham City’s 50 in the 2005/06 campaign.

In contrast, 17th placed teams averaged 39 goals scored and 60 goals shipped. The most ever scored by a 17th place team were West Ham’s 47 in 2009/10, the fewest ever shipped were Bolton’s 51 in 2002/03.

Statistically speaking therefore, if a team can score 40 goals while conceding no more than 60 or thereabouts, they are a good bet for survival.

There will, of course, always be odd cases where a team is exceedingly stout defensively but is so unproductive offensively that even conceding between 50 and 60 goals will not be enough to ensure survival. In the past ten years, that’s happened to nine teams, so a little less than 33% of relegated sides.

Likewise, a team can be explosive offensively but so inept on the defensive side of things that they still take the drop. In the past ten years, there have been six teams – so that’s 20% – to score 45 or more and still get relegated.

From these statistics, I want to make a few observations:

1) There are two ways to give yourself a very good shot at survival. One is to score 45 goals. In the last ten years, only six teams have been relegated after scoring 45 goals. The second way is to concede 55 goals or fewer. In the same time span, only two teams have been relegated after conceding 55 or fewer.

The six 45 goal sides to be relegated are Leicester City (2003/4), Southampton (04/05), Birmingham (07/08), Blackpool (10/11), and Bolton and Blackburn (2011/12). The two 55 goal sides to drop are Birmingham (05/06 – God has something against the Blues, apparently) and Sheffield United (06/07).

The basic lesson is that competence on both offence and defence with a slightly above average performance in one of the two areas is enough to guarantee survival, in even the toughest seasons.

2) That said, QPR and Norwich fans should be a bit nervous. Both their sides shipped 66 last season, a figure distressingly close to the relegated side average of 67 goals conceded. Life in the Premier League requires a certain baseline defensive competence.

Analysis shows several teams have survived one season while conceding a lot, but most then take the drop in year two. (Bradford in 2002 and Hull in 2010 are good examples.) In fact, QPR would already have gone down were it not for the utterly shocking defensive record of last season’s three relegated sides, who shipped 77, 78 and 82 respectively.

To put how bad Bolton, Blackburn and Wolves were into perspective, in the entire 20 team Premier League era only 11 teams have shipped 77 or more in a single season. There had never been a season that included three such teams before and only once had two teams hit such marks of defensive incompetence. If Bolton or Blackburn had simply been below average defensively, rather than laughably poor, QPR would have dropped.

3) The main takeaway for this year’s promoted sides: a) West Ham should be fine – their goal difference will be under control which helps in tiebreakers and they’ll steal a couple matches because of their defensive, direct style.

Allardyce-ball isn’t necessarily the best way to survive in the top flight for everyone, but it has served Allardyce well over his career. Plus if things do look dicey for the Hammers, they have the resources to make a buy or two in January, perhaps even bringing on a loanee from a top six side. Tom Huddlestone could be a good candidate, for example.

Thinking bigger picture, West Ham isn’t the sort of club that should be getting relegated in the first place. The Hammers are one of those anomalous relegated sides rather like Newcastle, Blackburn and Bolton, and like Villa nearly were last season.

Clubs of that size never drop because they lack resources or players. They drop because of mismanagement. So the above analysis doesn’t necessarily apply to those sorts of mismanaged bigger clubs. After all, there’s no accounting for stupid. The data is far more useful in assessing how minnows new to the top flight – like a Blackpool, Burnley, Swansea, or Reading – might fare.

b) And on that front, the news is good for Southampton and not so good for Reading.

Last season Reading won the Championship with 69 goals and 41 conceded. Southampton came in second with 85 scored and 46 conceded. That suggests one side that plays a more conventional style and won fairly methodically against generally overmatched opponents and one side that overwhelmed the opposition with attacking verve.

Put another way, Reading won on organization and a talent discrepancy. Southampton also won thanks to a talent discrepancy, but were much more threatening on the attack, averaging nearly two goals per match.

Thus far, through six games Southampton have already scored 10 while conceding 18 (and if you take away the hiding at the Emirates, it’s a much more respectable 9 scored, 12 shipped). Also note that they’ve already faced both Manchester sides, Arsenal, and Everton.

Reading, in five matches including games with Spurs and Chelsea, have scored six and conceded 11.

Before I continue, I’ll freely concede that this is very early so such prognostications shouldn’t be treated like Holy Writ, but simply like the speculation that they are.

That said, I expect we’ll see Southampton continue to score at a Blackpool or Norwich-like pace. Because they are not nearly as stout defensively as last year’s Canaries, they’ll always be around the drop zone, but their fate won’t be decided until the last day. And as anyone who remembers the last day relegation chaos of two seasons ago can tell you, anything can happen on the last day.

On the other hand, I worry that Reading, lacking the goal-scoring ability of Southampton but similarly vulnerable at the back, will have a much rougher ride this season and will probably struggle to break 35 points and will likely drop at year’s end.

(photo credit: cn174 via Just Football on Flickr)

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