Friday, December 2, 2011

Points and Relegation: The Premier League Since 1995/96

Hard to believe, but roughly one third of this year's Premier League season has been played already, and some clubs are starting to look over their shoulder with a nagging worry. They're looking at their current squad and manager, and they wonder: is it enough? Will we make it?

Sunderland's Steve Bruce is this year's first managerial sacking, surely brought on by a lack of results, but also a niggling fear of not surviving in the Premiership. As of right now, Sunderland's situation is not a full-blown emergency - but it's getting there, with 11 points from 13 matches. Things are most acute for Bolton, Wigan, and Blackburn who have managed to generate a paltry 9, 9, and 7 points, respectively, this year. 

We know they're not on target to survive the season - but how far from safety are they? To answer that question, let's look at some historical data for the last 16 seasons. Here are two key indicators of what it takes to survive: first, what was the minimum number of points that kept clubs in the league each year? And second, the maximum number of points of relegated teams - how much was not quite enough?

As the graph shows, the number of points needed to remain in the Premier League varies considerably over the years. On average, teams that managed to avoid relegation (who placed 17 in the league) managed to produce 38.6 points. But there have been seasons (2004/05) when 34 points were enough, as well as seasons (2002/03) when teams needed 44 to play another season of Premiership football.

Looked at from the perspective of the bottom teams, what was the number of points that weren't quite enough to stay in the league? As the second graph reveals, in some years (notably, 02/03, but also 96/97 and 97/98) even 40 points were insufficient for avoiding relegation. On average over the last 16 seasons, 36 points did not quite cut it.

So back to Steve Bruce's former employers at Sunderland. Their 11 points so far put them on pace to produce 32.4 points. At that rate, given the numbers above, it's no surprise that Ellis Short pulled the plug on Bruce's tenure there. There's not a single club that has survived in the league with such a low number of points. And Bolton, Wigan, and Blackburn are currently on pace to produce 26.5 (Bolton and Wigan) and 20.5 points (in the case of Blackburn). Unless something happens - and of course, it always can in football - they'll be playing in the Championship next year.