On Boxing Day 2004 West Brom’s 19th game of the season saw them at home to Liverpool. They lost 0-5, which left them adrift at the bottom, with 10 points and a goal difference of -24. They drew their next match 1-1, away to Man City, but this wasn’t enough to lift them up the table. The teams above them, Southampton and Crystal Palace, had finished Christmas with 14 points apiece and better goal differences, and draws weren’t enough.
However, draws kept coming as West Brom moved into the New Year and it wasn’t until 22nd January, in the return fixture against Man City, that they had their next win, their second of the season. It still wasn’t enough and West Brom remained bottom throughout February. Not until 5th March, three weeks before Easter, did a win move them above Norwich. Then another win and a couple of draws moved them out of the bottom three, only for a slump to return them to the bottom with one game to go.
On the final day only two points separated the bottom four teams; everyone else was well clear. Of the four, Norwich now had the most points but the worst goal difference, which meant only a win would guarantee safety. Southampton not only needed Norwich to lose, they also needed to do as well as both Palace and West Brom. Palace needed both Norwich and West Brom to lose and also to gain one more point than Southampton, or to score two more goals than the Saints if Palace and Southampton both won. West Brom, in bottom place, needed to win to have a chance and would go down if any other team got three points.
We all know what happened. West Brom were the only one of the bottom four teams to win, which ensured they became the only club in 20th place at Christmas to survive the relegation battle.
West Brom went into the New Year with 10 points and finished the season with 34. A paltry total, you might think, but it guaranteed safety, and it signalled a life-saving improvement. The teams competing with West Brom also improved, Norwich went from 15 points after 19 games to 33 points at the season’s end, while Southampton and Palace both went from 14 points to 32 but West Brom’s improvement was more than the others and this was enough for survival.
Fast forward to 2012-13. Relegation was settled before the end of the season but the battle to avoid the drop was close run between quite a few clubs. Again, the bottom three clubs at Christmas improved but this time some of their neighbours trod water and three, SAFC included, deteriorated and were dragged deeper into the mire.
By looking at the points gained by last season’s bottom clubs at the half-way stage and at the end of the season I’ve been able to measure the relative improvement of each of these teams. Dividing points for the second half of the season by points for the first half allowed me to arrive at a figure I’ve chosen to call the “improvement quotient”, or IQ, just for fun. An IQ of 1 signifies no change in performance, a figure above 1 means there was an improvement and a figure below 1 tells us the team deteriorated:
Unfortunately for Wigan, Reading and QPR their 2013 improvement wasn’t on the scale of West Brom’s in 2005, which demonstrates just what clubs in the bottom three have to do if they are to have a chance. That said, the table also shows that any team above 18th who can’t perform gives the bottom teams a lifeline. Ourselves, Stoke and Norwich all sailed close to the wind.
At Christmas small gaps become important for survival. Those few extra points mean you’ve been playing better than others and if you keep pace with clubs below you the gap between you and them will widen. Look at Sunderland and Norwich on the next graph. They deteriorated by the same amount in the second half of the season but by the end Norwich were where they had been at Christmas while we had dropped four places. Even better performing but lower-placed teams will struggle to catch you. Look at the doomed triumvirate: They all did better in the second half but couldn’t lift themselves beyond a plummeting Stoke or Sunderland. Even Reading, with the best improvement of all the bottom ten clubs, stayed where they were:
This does not bode well for us but we are no worse off than West Brom eight years ago, and we aren’t down yet. That said, improving enough remains a massive task. Can we do it?
What happens if we apply last year’s IQs to the league table at the half way stage? Can we predict the bottom places? I think not, but perhaps we can see what different clubs need to do. Here’s a graph showing how many points the bottom clubs at Christmas might get with different degrees of improvement:
The lines have three figures. These represent the points each club will achieve if they perform as well as Reading did in the second half of last season, they points they will get if they slump as badly as Stoke did and the points they can expect if they perform at an average level.
We’re going to finish with between 21 and 39 points. The graph shows that 39 could be enough to catch all of the clubs in the bottom half of the table, but it’s an anomaly. These clubs will play us and each other and all will pick up some points. Some, most likely those at the top end, will finish with more than 39 points. Even so, 39 points is usually enough for safety.
So what of the clubs nearest to us? There are five we could catch if they perform at an average level and we improve significantly, and another two who can’t afford a slump. A stern chase is a long chase but it’s possible, and that’s without taking account of the Gus factor.
I’ll revisit in a few weeks to see how we’re doing. In the meantime, I’ll be keeping the faith.
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