Saturday, 23 June 2012

First Impressions Count

Talent hits a target no one else can hit; genuis hits a target no one else can see.
It is only at the first encounter that a face makes its full impression on us. At first glance you might think Schopenhauer's aphoristic statement of transcendental idealism has little relevance to a promoted team's chances of survival in their first season in the Premier League, but someone at West Ham has clearly taken the maxim 'you never get a second chance to make a first impression' to heart. This morning Sam Allardyce reiterated the need to see West Ham United make an instant impact when they kick-off their return to the Barclays Premier League on 18 August. The Hammers face Aston Villa at the Boleyn Ground in what will be the reverse of the first game of the Premier League season two years ago. Avram Grant's side went down 3-0 that day at Villa Park before going on to lose their first four Premier League games and Big Sam believes that his new-look West Ham side cannot afford a similar start.

Cursory statistical analysis concludes that if a new arrival wins their opening game of the fledgling Premier League season, then they have a 75 per cent chance of staying up. Including the three newcomers, 62 teams have been promoted to the Premier League up to 2012-13, which is the League’s 21st season. (Three teams have come up per year except in 1995 when only Middlesbrough and Bolton came up as the division was cut in size). Of the 59 ‘debuts’ so far by teams in a ‘coming up’ season, only 12 teams started with wins, 15 began with draws, and 32 lost their opening games. Of those 12 first-day winners first, nine of them (or 75 per cent) went on to retain their Premier League status at the end of that season. That’s why a first-day win could be so vital to this term’s newcomers. The three among the dozen who won their openers but went down anyway were Blackpool (two seasons ago), Bolton and Crystal Palce in 1997.

West Ham United captain Kevin Nolan is clearly relishing his club’s return to the Barclays Premier League after the Hammers were pitted against The Villans on the opening day of the season. The Midlanders will travel to Upton Park with new manager Paul Lambert in charge for the first time but Nolan believes home advantage can prove crucial for the Hammers. "It is a home game to get us started, which is great for us,” Nolan told West Ham’s website. “Aston Villa are a very good side and have a new manager so their players will be looking to impress, but we will be aiming to kick off the new campaign in a positive way on our own ground and look to try and win the game.”

For David Gold the motivation will be slightly more visceral, with the Hammers Chairman admitting he is keen to see his side gain revenge for the events of two seasons ago. "It's going to be extremely exciting; we're back in the Premier League," Gold told Sky Sports News. "It's Aston Villa first, I'm pleased about that for a number of reasons, one being the last time we played them on the first game they beat us 3-0 at Aston Villa, so I'm looking forward to them coming here and hopefully we can reverse the score. I think it is important to get off to a good start; the season before last in the Premier League I think we lost our first four games because we were playing big clubs. But at home to Aston Villa and away at Swansea, they are winnable games or games you can expect to get something from so we are very excited about it."

So what chance of Southampton, Reading and West Ham winning on opening weekend? The stats suggest the Hammers have the best chance – albeit not a good chance. Teams arriving in the Premier League as play-off winners from the second tier have the best record on the opening day (five wins, six draws and nine losses in 20 matches to date). The champions have a very slightly worse record (W5, D4, L11) and the runners-up have the worse record (W2, D6, L12). On this basis, Southampton have the toughest historical hoodoo to overcome. The last time the Championship runners-up won their first match the next season in the Premier League was in August 1999 when Bradford won 1-0 at Middlesbrough. The biggest win by a promoted side in their ‘debut’ game was 11 years ago when Bolton won 5-0 at Leicester and the largest debut defeat was two years ago when West Brom went down 0-6 to Chelsea at Stamford Bridge. West Brom survived, of course, so losing doesn’t mean relegation. But winning certainly helps survival.

Even before that ball is kicked, history suggests that prior to last season the promoted trio would have a 53.6 per cent chance of survival. This is based on 56 teams previous being promoted to the Premier League since 1992, and 30 of those 56 teams (or 53.6 per cent) surviving their first season. That means 26 immediately went back down. Among the promoted teams in the past 19 seasons, 34 of them amassed 13 or more points from their first dozen games, and of those 34, eight were relegated (or 23.5 per cent), meaning the survival rate for 13 points after a dozen games is 76.5 per cent. (Details of the eight who went down are in the table below). The highest tally for a promoted side after 12 games was amassed by Nottingham Forest in 1994-95 (with 27 points) followed by Wigan (25 points in 2005-06) and Blackburn (25 points in 1992-93). The lowest tallies were amassed by Swindon (five points from first 12 games 1993-94) and Sunderland (five points in 2005-06), then Derby (six points in 2007-08).

Last season all three promoted teams made promising starts and gained a total of 41 points having played 12 games each, with QPR picking up 15 points, and Norwich and Swansea collecting 13 points each. On this basis, the latter two increased their survival chances to that encouraging 76 per cent figure; while QPR went even higher to 83.3 per cent predicated on the fact that among the 24 promoted teams who had amassed as many points from the first 12 games, only four of those, or 16.7 per cent, ended up relegated. Prior to last season the previous time that all three promoted clubs managed to avoid immediate relegation was 2000/01. According to Prozone, over the last five years the average time that newly promoted clubs spent in the Premier League is 1.9 seasons. Over the last ten years the team promoted as champions have been relegated after just one season on three occasions, the runners-up on four occasions and the play-off final winners on six occasions.

It is the reason, believes Allardyce, why West Ham must try to achieve as many points as possible from those crucial early games. "It will be hugely difficult but not as difficult as what follows," he told West Ham TV. "We get through October and then November and December are the toughest months of the season, not only because of the fixtures but the number of games we have to play. We've got to get off to get off to a flying start and achieve as many points as we can in the first nine or ten games. The fixtures are difficult though; nothing is going to be easy at all."

A good start to the season is crucial, agrees former Hammers stalwart Tony Gale. "I can't stress how important it is for sides to get a good start," he said. "We've got six new managers starting the season, three promoted sides and three sides that might be accused of second season syndrome if things don't go too well. Those tough games can knock the stuffing out of you early on if you're on the wrong end of the result. Just look at teams like Bolton, who had such a hard first six to eight games last season and found themselves playing catch up all year. It's so important you pick up some points in those first games."

Not least because winning games at the start of the season is statistically an easier proposition. Primarily it is all about grinding out results and attempting to find some fluency. "There can be some strange results early in the season as all the teams look to settle into their routines, but if we can make a solid start, then that will be good for us," insists Nolan. "Nothing is sorted early in the season, but if we can start as well as we can do, then we give ourselves something to build on. I am sure all our fans can't wait for the season to begin and to know we are back in the Premier League only makes it more exciting. I am sure our fans will do their best to help us do what we can to get off to a good start."

Those fans will become ever more crucial when the end is in sight; mental factors come into play, as well as fatigue, especially if a team is in the latter stages of a cup competition. Teams have to pay more attention to what their rivals are doing. Some have games in hand, some have points on the board. Nerves start to affect players. Being able to cope with the pressure of being in a relegation scrap is what separates contenders from ultimate survivors in a situation where every point counts. In five of the last six seasons the 17th placed team has survived by a margin of one point or by superior goal difference. While 'reaching 40 points' is seen by many as the Holy Grail, the average number of points needed to retain Premier League status over the last five seasons has been 36.7 and dropping. Last season QPR clung to last day survival with 34 points.

While we are butchering sacred cows there is an old adage that "when you’re down at the bottom it’s the six pointers that matter". However, both relegated West Ham (14 points) and Birmingham (13 points) gained more points against the eventual bottom six than 17th placed Wolves, who managed only 8 points against their direct relegation rivals last time the Hammers dropped. So, it would appear that not even beating those around you at the bottom can guarantee survival.

Ultimately, the newly promoted clubs will need to ensure their Premier League status by performing on the pitch. Having analysed the performance statistics of teams that have survived their first seasons and those that have returned to the Championship after just one season, there really is very little difference in their key performance indicators. In fact, reveals Prozone, the relegated teams have a superior pass completion rate with 54 more passes a game than the teams that survive. These relegated teams also had an average of 1.1 more shots on goal per game. This would suggest that possession and shots at goal are not necessarily indicators of superiority, and that incisiveness and accuracy in front of goal play a larger role in survival.

There is a lot of speculation on the physical demands of the Championship compared to the Premier League. This last season saw Championship teams run an average of 3.6km more each match than their Premier League counterparts, cover 1,239 metres at high intensity and perform 62 more sprints per game. Therefore it will be adapting to the style of play and the tempo of the game that will be fundamental for the newly promoted clubs. The statistics show that relegated teams run 25m further in every match and cover 92m more at high intensity than those teams that have avoided the drop proving quality is the key to Premier League success.

Which brings us to the players on the pitch that will ultimately earn those points, which is why all three newly promoted clubs will be looking to bring in new players to create a squad that they feel is capable of keeping them in the Premier League. Prozone shows that over the last five seasons, the newly promoted teams have brought in the most players during the summer with an average of 9 new players, while the top four clubs bring in an average of 5.1. This is perhaps understandable, with new clubs looking to bring in the added number and quality of players they need to stay up, while in the upper reaches of the league it is usually more about refining the squad to achieve a higher finish and push for honours.

The January transfer window sees another busy time for the newly promoted clubs, as they look to cement their place in the top division. In fact, they bring in almost three times as many players (4.2) as those teams in the Champions League places (1.5). The established Premier League clubs draw the majority of their player purchases from the top leagues in Europe (the Premier League, La Liga, Serie A, Ligue 1 and the Bundesliga) with the top four clubs drawing an average of 63.1% of all transfers from these leagues. With smaller budgets and less pulling power, the newly promoted teams must cast their net further and perhaps take a gamble on players who have not yet proven themselves in the top European leagues. In fact, the newly promoted clubs will take just under half (45.3%) of their new recruits from outside of these 'Big Five' leagues.

I guess the only thing we can say for certainty is that statistics offer many clues but few straight forward answers into what it takes to survive in the Premier League. Given that survival and relegation depend on small margins and that a single point will usually make the difference, perhaps fans of newly promoted teams would be better served spending these precious summer months basking in reflected glory instead of sweating the travails ahead. In the words of Schopenhauer: "A man's delight in looking forward to and hoping for some particular satisfaction is a part of the pleasure flowing out of it, enjoyed in advance. But this is afterward deducted, for the more we look forward to anything the less we enjoy it when it comes." And if you still doubt the great man knew anything about football then think again because I've seen the documentary footage.


Anonymous said...

If there are 3 men and you being chased by 3 lions. Do you have to be able to outrun the lions? No, you just have to be able to outrun the other 3 men.

Anonymous said...

Wow, that is amazing stuff but my head was spinning by the end! I think I'm sure I now know (possibly) what we have to do to survive next season but I wouldn't count on it.

Lawrence said...

The hits keep on coming mate and this post is one of your best efforts yet. I was already pretty confident we would survive next season but I'm convinced now.

Anonymous said...

A wise man once said never gone a give u up never gonna let u down never gone a run around and hurt u never gone a make u cry never gone a tell a lie never gone a say goodbye or hurt u

Monty said...

Anon- I think that was Ludwig Rickgenstein. It just sounds like something that crazy bastard would say.

Great read BTW!

Laertes said...

Absolutely fascinating insight into the kind of thought processes and number crunching that govern modern football. If anyone knows of a book that covers this kind of stuff then I would love to hear about.

penyabogarde said...

barcelona hammers saluden !

visca el barça i visca el west ham unided!


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