Profit from the numbers game

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 01 November, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 01 November, 2003, 12:00am

A close examination of the statistics provides compelling evidence of who will finish where in the final standings

The English Premiership is a marathon, not a sprint, according to the old cliche, but there is no denying that a fast start is essential.

With 10 games played this season, there are some surprise teams near the top, particularly Birmingham and Fulham, but recent history suggests that the current league positions are unlikely to alter radically by the end of the season.

Statistics from the past five seasons, comparing league positions at the end of October with the final table, produce compelling evidence that early-season form is of vital importance for a good campaign overall.

Consider the facts:

Only six teams have managed to move more than three places after the end of October in four of the past five seasons (in the other season, it was just four).

Few teams drop out of the top half of the table after the end of October - just one team in each of the past two seasons, two in each of the previous two seasons, and none at all in 1998/99. Even then, most still finished 11th-13th at the end of the season.

The relegation issue is virtually settled - in four of the past five seasons, three of the bottom four at the end of October have finished the season still in the bottom four. Of the 15 relegated teams in that period, only two were higher than 15th at the end of October.

The stats prove the importance of betting on current form, not reputation, and it is clear already that teams such as Liverpool (10th) and Blackburn (16th) will struggle to achieve the ambitions they held at the start of the season. Conversely, teams such as Birmingham and Fulham appear to be in the top half of the table on merit.

However, given that there will be some movement in the table, it is worth looking for more clues. The teams most likely to drop out of the top half can be identified by a combination of factors: low draw ratio, low goal difference and low number of goals scored.

A low draw ratio (where the number of wins and defeats are almost even) is one of the most obvious warning signs about a seemingly successful team - it indicates a limited capacity to withstand a poor run of form. In the past four seasons, the top-half team with the lowest number of draws from a full number of games played at the end of October has always dropped down the table (Spurs went from fifth to 10th last season and seventh to ninth the season before, preceded by Newcastle going from eighth to 11th and Middlesbrough from sixth to 12th).

Discounting Manchester United (only one draw, but seven wins against two defeats), those stats point this year to Liverpool (four wins, four defeats and just two draws). However, three of the four teams mentioned above also had a goal difference no better than +1 at this stage, whereas Liverpool's +4 suggests they can improve (at this stage in 1999 they were 10th, with five wins, four defeats and three draws, and a goal difference of just +2, but went on to finish fourth).

The final indicator is a low number of goals scored, even with a decent goal difference, as this points to a team too reliant on defence. In the past five seasons, a total of six teams have been in the top seven at this stage despite having one of the two lowest goals-for totals in the top half - five of those six fell subsequently, the only riser being Manchester United from fourth to first last season.

Putting all those factors together, Birmingham (fourth with nine goals scored, the lowest in the top half), Southampton (sixth with 10 goals scored, the second lowest) and Charlton (ninth with +1 goal difference, the worst in the top half) are the likely fallers this season and are teams to be wary of in the coming weeks.

It is harder to predict which teams might rise out of the bottom half - though it is easy to see which ones will stay there. A poor goal difference is the best indicator - any team with a goal difference poorer than the fourth-worst in the league has a two-in-three chance of relegation. That does not bode well for Wolves (15th, -14), Bolton (18th, - 11) and Leeds (19th, -12), especially given the stats regarding their league positions at this stage.

A reasonable goal difference and/or a high number of goals scored (given that most struggling teams have difficulty scoring) are usually signs that a team can rise up the table, so Blackburn (16th, -4 but 15 goals scored, the highest tally in the lower half) should improve. Leicester have a case for survival based on those stats (-7, 14 goals scored) but the bottom team at this stage has finished no higher than 17th in the past five seasons.

The teams with the lowest goals conceded in the bottom half at this stage usually hold their position at least, especially if they are already around mid-table, so contenders for a top-half finish must include Portsmouth (11th, 12 goals conceded, the lowest in the bottom half), Spurs (12th, 13 goals conceded) and Villa (14th, 12 goals conceded).

Most of the big teams feature in live action tonight, including Arsenal and Manchester United in England, Bayern Munich in Germany and the big Italian clash between AC Milan and Juventus. In other live action, Real Madrid should continue their great home record against Athletic Bilbao, while Deportivo are expected to get back on track at Murcia after their shock midweek home defeat.

Better odds for an away win are available tomorrow about Valencia, at Mallorca, and Parma, who go to Brescia. Valencia collected only one point from six last week, but those games were against Deportivo and Celta and they look a big price considering their previous form (especially as Mallorca's 2-0 midweek win at Deportivo might well have been a one-off). Parma's only away defeat (indeed their only loss in nine games this season) came at Roma, so they look overpriced against Brescia, who are a reasonable side but have drawn all three home matches this season.

For a really big price, Portsmouth are worth considering at Manchester United. It is almost unthinkable that United could lose two home games in a row, but the injuries to Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and now Paul Scholes are a big dent in United's ability to attack relentlessly (always their best form of defence). Portsmouth fit the bill of a side that could do well at Old Trafford - attack-minded, good passers and some top-class players (much like Fulham) - although their defence is a worry. While United are unlikely to lose too many even without Solskjaer and Scholes, they look more vulnerable than usual.

Home bankers must include Wolfsburg and Roma, two of the best home sides in their leagues, who host struggling Hertha Berlin and Reggina respectively.

There is plenty of European action next week, with the Champions League and UEFA Cup. As usual, it is best to reserve judgment until after the weekend matches, but three teams who might be good value are Dynamo Kiev, Ajax and Steaua Bucharest.

Kiev are sure to get chances at Highbury, where Arsenal will have to go for it; Ajax (1-0 home winners over Celta) are good enough to take advantage of their Spanish opponents' below-par form; and Steaua knocked out Southampton in the last round and will fancy their chances at home to Liverpool (the question to ask when the odds are released is: if it was Southampton at home to Liverpool, what price Liverpool?).

Best homes: Wolfsburg, Middlesbrough, Newcastle, Tottenham, Roma (v Reggina).

Best aways: Manchester City, Parma, Valencia.

High goals: Werder Bremen v Frankfurt, Fulham v Liverpool, Roma v Reggina.

Low goals: Udinese v Lazio, AC Milan v Juventus, Chievo v Inter Milan.