Two seasons ago, Liverpool defeated Norwich 4-1 on Matchday 1. The Reds drove to win the title and the Canaries were relegated. They will meet again on the opening weekend on Saturday
When the Premier League campaign kicks off this weekend, managers will be quick to stress that the season is long and nothing will be decided in the opening weeks.
Legendary Liverpool coach Bill Shankly famously said “The league is a marathon, not a sprint” while Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United spoke about title challenges that really started in February.
But do these two beliefs still hold true as the game evolves?
The evidence suggests that on both ends of the table, getting off to a quick start is more important than ever to success today.
Take 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 division.
In the 99 years leading up to the Premier League’s inception, only 26% of the teams that topped the table in September actually won the title, and less than half of the teams that topped the league in October were still at the end of the season there.
Almost 100 years later, 69% of the top teams won the title in September, a number that climbs to 76% of the top teams in October.
And what about Ferguson’s idea of waiting until the new year to really get into the title step?
Prior to 1992, only 64% of the top teams in December became champions, compared to 86% in the Premier League.
At a time when a couple of defeats can kill a club’s prospects for the title, getting off to a quick start was more important than ever.
Another indicator of the importance of these early games is that the first 10 games of the eventual master deliver a higher percentage of points won two-thirds of the time than the other 28 games.
Can a quick start avoid a slow death?
Promoted players struggled to survive in the Premier League, with 47% relegated in their first season.
So it’s no wonder that they have such a bad record on the opening day. In fact, they have only won three such games out of 30 and lost 20 in the past decade.
But earning points early in the season is as important as it is at the top of the table, and recovery from an early setback quickly marks those who survive.
In the past 20 seasons, there has been a fairly clear threshold that promoted players have to reach in order to be certain of survival – 11 points from their first 10 games. Below we see the number of points promoted players earned in their first 10 Premier League games, the number of teams surviving and relegated with those points, and the survival rate:
|Points after 10 games||Survived||Relegated||% Survival rate|
In total, 11 or more points at the start of your campaign gives an 89% chance of staying awake, but if you get less than 11, the survival rate drops to 31%.
But are the opening games more important than the last? Does closing the transfer window allow teams to regroup?
Crystal Palace and Leicester City have previously gone on memorable runs to avoid the drop, gaining 18 and 22 points respectively in their last 10 games, but these superhuman efforts are rare.
When comparing the first and last 10 games of the season for promoted players, a better chance of survival in the first 10 gives a 71% chance of survival, while a better chance of survival in the last 10 (excluding Palace and Leicester) gives a 58% chance.
And what about the magical 11 points from 10 games? 25 clubs did and survived this in their first 10 games, while only 15 did it in their last 10 and stayed on top.
A bad start can lead to a long, disappointing season. Whether you want to challenge at the top or fight for survival at the end, it is wise to carefully analyze these opening games and make the most of them.
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