The seventh seal (part 1)

October 5, 2010 § 1 Comment

How much does the league table, at this stage, really tell us?

In those hazy days before Rupert Murdoch gave birth to football, there was general agreement throughout the land that a league table should never be published before the third match of every season, lest any importance be given to what was, by definition, a big old pile of one-off results. Which is eminently sensible, which explains why it doesn’t happen any more.

So when does a table start to take shape? Three games? Thirteen? Thirty? One logical option would be to conclude that the first truly important table is the one following the nineteenth game, the half-way point of the season. Everybody’s played everybody else once, and – while the home and away factor is important – you can at least begin to gather some sense of how a team stands in comparison to all the others (which is, y’know, kind of the point of a league).

But these are interesting times; not only did Match of the Day show the table AFTER ONE SODDING GAME, but managers are already being invited into the office, asked to sit down, offered a cigar, and then being dispatched with an itchy trigger-finger into a fiery pit of self-regarding hubris. Is there any justification for this? Historically, how useful has the table at this stage of the season been at telling us who’s going to win the thing, or who’s going to go down?

Since the introduction of three points for a win, in 1981/82, there have been 29 full seasons. As you might expect, the position of the eventual winner after seven games fluctuates quite significantly. In that first 3-for-a-win season, for instance, Liverpool were eight points behind the leaders after seven games; in 1985/86 they were seven points adrift. However, in both those seasons the top-flight consisted of 22 teams, meaning that they were proportionally even closer to the beginning of the season.

In 20-team leagues, the largest deficit after seven games of any team that’s gone on to win the title is 6 points: Arsenal in 1988/89 and 1990/91, and Manchester United in 2002/03. Manchester United also managed it in 1998/99 and 2008/09, albeit with a game in hand. One upshot of which is that an Arsenal title this season, from seven points behind with seven games gone, would be without precedent.

More interestingly is that of these 29 seasons, the club top after seven games has gone on to win only nine times: Liverpool in 1982/82 and 1989/90, Manchester United in 1993/94, 1999/00, 2000/01, 2006/07, Arsenal in 2003/04, and Chelsea in 2005/06 and 2009/10. Which means that slightly less than a third of league titles have, since the introduction of 3-for-a-win, gone to the the team on top after seven points.

Tentative conclusions? Well, it’s certainly tempting to counsel that Chelsea’s muscular inevitability isn’t perhaps as done a deal as all that, and to nod wisely about how it’s form at the end of the season that counts. However, six of those top-after-seven triumphs have come in the last eleven seasons – a slight majority – and so a more rounded conclusion might be that, in general, the shape of the top of the division is starting to form earlier and earlier. Ultimately, while it’s always better to have more points than your rivals at any given stage, these days it might be best to make sure of it before the clocks go back.

But what about the relegation zone? Coming soon …

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