Is a fast start crucial to a successful season?

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August 10, 2021
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    Liverpool beat Norwich on the opening day two seasons agoTwo seasons ago Liverpool beat Norwich 4-1 on the first day of the season. The Reds went on to the win the title and the Canaries were relegated. They meet again on the opening weekend on Saturday

    When the Premier League campaign begins this weekend, managers will be quick to stress that the season is long and nothing is decided in the opening weeks.

    Legendary Liverpool manager Bill Shankly famously said "the league is a marathon not a sprint", while at Manchester United Sir Alex Ferguson used to talk about title challenges beginning properly in February.

    But as the game evolves, do those two views still hold true?

    The evidence suggests that at both ends of the table a fast start is now more crucial to success than ever before.

    Taking the lead at the top

    Before the Premier League began 29 years ago, there was less correlation between taking an early lead in the title race and actually winning the top flight.

    In the 99 years played before the Premier League's formation, only 26% of teams who led the table during September actually went on to win the title, and fewer than half of teams top in October would still be there at the end of the season.

    Fast forward about 100 years and, in the Premier League era, 69% of teams top in September have gone on to win the title, a figure which rises to 76% for those top in October.

    And what about Ferguson's idea of waiting until the new year to really get into your title stride?

    Before 1992 a relatively low 64% of sides top in December became champions, while that figure is 86% in the Premier League.

    In an era when a few defeats can be fatal to a club's prospects of becoming champions, it has never been more important to get off to a fast start.

    Amount of the team top at the September, October, November or December have won the title (69%, 76%, 79%, 86% in Premier League era)

    Another indicator of the importance of these early matches is that two-thirds of the time the eventual champions' first 10 matches provide a better percentage of points gained than the other 28 games.

    Can a fast start avoid a slow death?

    Promoted teams have struggled to survive in the Premier League, with 47% relegated in their first season.

    So it is little surprise that they have such a poor record on the opening day. In fact, they have won just three such fixtures out of 30 in the past decade, losing 20.

    But getting early-season points is just as vital lower down the table as it is at the top and rebounding from an early setback quickly marks out those that survive.

    Over the past 20 seasons there has been a reasonably clear threshold that promoted teams have to reach to be confident of survival – 11 points from the first 10 matches. Below we see the number of points earned by promoted teams during their first 10 matches in the Premier League, the number of teams surviving and being relegated with those points, and the survival rate:

    Promoted teams – and how they have fared over last 20 seasons
    Points after 10 games Survived Relegated % survival rate
    0-7 2 15 12%
    8-10 8 7 53%
    11-12 10 2 83%
    12+ 15 1 94%

    Overall, 11 or more points to start your campaign gives an 89% chance of staying up, but get less than 11 and the survival rate drops to 31%.

    But are the opening games more important than the final ones? Does the closing of the transfer window allow teams to regroup?

    Crystal Palace and Leicester City have previously made memorable runs to avoid the drop, winning 18 and 22 points respectively from their final 10 games, but these superhuman efforts are rare.

    When comparing the opening and closing 10 games of the season for promoted teams, being better in the first 10 gives a 71% chance of survival, while being better in the final 10 (Palace and Leicester aside) gives a 58% chance.

    And what of the magical 11 points from 10 games? Twenty five clubs have managed this in their first 10 games and survived, while only 15 have managed this in their final 10 and stayed up.

    A poor start can lead to a long, disappointing season. So whether you hope to challenge at the top or scrape survival at the bottom, it is wise to carefully analyse those opening fixtures and make the most of them.

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