Today’s huge news, regarding the agreement in principle of a sale of Liverpool Football Club to New England Sports Ventures (the company that owns, among other things, the Boston Red Sox) has prompted me to do something I’ve been meaning to do for a long, long time: look at the history of the Premiership table and see what kinds of stories it tells, namely regarding the question of relegation, a very real possiblity at this moment for Liverpool.
The Premier League, which began in 1992 by replacing the former Football League First Division, features the 20 best (22 until 1995) soccer teams in England and Wales. Since 1995, the three worst teams each season are relegated to what is now called the Football League Championship, which is the second-highest tier of English and Welsh soccer. Those three vacancies are filled by the top two teams from the second tier as well as the victor of the Football League Championship Playoffs, contested by the 3rd–6th place teams.
Relegation has always fascinated me as a punishment for poor performance, and I wish that pro sports in the US had such a system in place. The immense loss of revenue that comes from falling out of the top-flight encourages teams to try to stay out of the relegation zone, and, similarly, the promise of promotion encourages teams to win their leagues and test their skill on a bigger stage.
My friend Josh, though, argues that relegation is useless, and that it’s the same handful of teams that keep coming up and going down. I never really doubted his assertion until today, when I decided to see what the numbers had to say.
First, over 18 completed seasons, a full 43 teams have competed in the Premiership. Only 7 teams have played in every season: Manchester United, Arsenal, Liverpool, Chelsea, Aston Villa, Tottenham Hotspur, and Everton.1 Of the remaining 36 teams, 3 have never been relegated. That is, Stoke City, Fulham, and Wigan Athletic were not in the Premier League in 1992, but since being promoted, they have yet to be sent back down.
In other words, there’s a lot of volatility in the table. Of the teams that made up the first year of the Premier League, only 9 were in last year’s version, with Manchester City and Blackburn Rovers joining the 7 permanent fixtures above.2
Of teams that have been relegated, no team has been relegated more than 4 times, and that was Crystal Palace. Among relegated teams, the average is 1.67 relegations per team, which certainly suggests that it’s not the same group of teams moving up and down every year. And of the 55 relegations since the 1992–1993 season, 25 were of the one-and-done variety, in which the promoted team immediately earns relegation again. This number’s pretty high, but in context, it’s not so bad: historically, promotion means a better than even chance of staying on in the Premiership. Of the 33 teams to have been relegated, all but 5 (Burnley, Barnsley, Crystal Palace, Watford, and Swindon Town) have avoided one-and-dones in the Premier League.
Relegation, then, is amazingly widespread. It hits a massive number of teams, yet no teams, save Crystal Palace, seem to be constantly slapped around by it. Usually if a team is good enough to get promoted, it sticks around for a bit.
Similarly, if a team gets relegated, it tends to stay relegated for a while. Only 10 teams have had bounce-back seasons, spending a year in the second-tier before returning to top-flight. Crystal Palace did it (of course), but so did Manchester City, Charlton Athletic, Bolton Wanderers, Middlesborough, Birmingham City (twice!), Leicester City (twice!), Sunderland, Nottingham Forest, and West Bromwich Albion. If we include this season, then that’s one more notch for West Brom and we add Newcastle to the mix, who bounced back after spending last year in the League Championship.
This list of teams, in fact, is perhaps the most interesting to me, since it includes many teams in the news lately. City is, of course, infamously trying to buy a berth in the UEFA Champions League; Leicester City just hired Sven-Goran Eriksson to bring it back to glory; Sunderland are moving into Premiership respectability by holding Arsenal, Liverpool, and Manchester United to a point each; and West Brom have exposed the shaky Arsenal defense, picking up three points at the Emirates.
So those are my thoughts about relegation. Incidentally, in drawing up my table for this exercise, I also took the averages of each team’s Premier League performance. The top performers, by average place, are:
- Manchester United (1.56)
- Arsenal (3.61)
- Liverpool (4.28)
- Chelsea (5.17)
- Aston Villa (8.39)
- Newcastle United (8.56)
- Leeds United (8.83)
- Blackburn Rovers (9.13)
- Tottenham Hotspur (9.44)
- Queens Park Rangers (10.25)
Among these top performers, 2 no longer play in the Premiership (Leeds and QPR), and 2 others (Newcastle and Blackburn) have been relegated once apiece. Everton, the last team to be in every Premier League campaign, is 11th with an average place of 11.33.
The distribution of the average places tells us a bit about how widespread relegation is, as well. The mean is 13.27, and the median is 13.50.3 This makes sense: the teams that are worse (and get relegated) will spend less time in the League and have higher average places. Similarly, since these teams are getting relegated, other bottom-table teams take their places. But note that the average is not so much higher than a random average of around 11, meaning that, again, there’s still plenty of volatility.
If we look at the histogram of the average places, we can see that it’s the strong success of the “Top 4″ (Man U, Arsenal, Chelsea, and Liverpool) that pulls the average down. The four of them have been consistently very, very strong.
So there you have my brief little glimpse at Premiership standings. Conclusion: relegation is thrilling, and I’m glad that the “Top 4″ will not be long for this world. Now only if Man U, Arsenal, and Chelsea could crumble a bit, too.
Now I have to fight the desire to write a program that calculates running averages, in order to see how teams have crumbled (or soared) over time.
- Note, of course, that Liverpool and Everton would be both relegated if the current season ended today! [↩]
- Blackburn has the dubious distinction of being the only Premiership winner to get relegated. [↩]
- The three seasons of 22 teams mess up all the calculations a bit, of course. [↩]