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Analysis

The Great Escapes

All twenty Premier League sides are back in action over the next 48 hours, in what is an action packed midweek coupon.  There is certainly plenty still to play for over the season’s final 15 games, with only Sunderland and Stoke looking both safe from the drop and a touch too far back to push on for a European place.

However, after their dire early season form it is highly unlikely Martin O’Neill’s men will be resting on their laurels and we all know Tony Pulis is not the sort of man to accept his players mailing it in and coasting through the next few months.

The most high profile fixture will no doubt be Liverpool’s visit to the Emirates to take on Arsenal, with a point of little use to either side if they are to keep in touch in the race for that lucrative fourth Champions League spot.

With Tottenham facing a tricky, but very much winnable trip to Carrow Road to take on Norwich City and Everton hosting eighth placed West Brom, we should be a lot closer to knowing which team’s will be playing in Europe next season by the time Jim White brings down the curtain on the transfer window on Thursday night.

Down at the bottom

Things are also likely to be a little clearer down at the foot of the table by then as well.  Aston Villa are looking to pick themselves up off the canvas to take on Newcastle – a side sporting more than a few war wounds of their own at the moment.  Again a point is of little use to either side, so we should hopefully be in for a cracking game.  To say this game is too close to call is somewhat of an understatement – numerous UK bookmakershave completely opposing views on which team is actually the favourite, which is highly unusual for a Premier League game.

However, the side we are going to focus on in this piece is QPR.  Despite being marooned at the foot of the table and five points from safety, the Hoops continue to be one of the biggest talking points in the game – although that would probably be true of any side managed by Harry Redknapp during the January transfer window, whether they were twelfth or twentieth!

Everyone seems to have a view on the Hoops’ chances of survival, so we thought we would have a more detailed look at the size of the task facing Harry’s men.

There are two ways of analysing a team’s chances of success and both have their own merits and drawbacks.  Later on we will look to forecast the required performance level QPR will need to have a realistic chance of survival, but first let’s review the historical performance of teams that have found themselves in similar circumstances.  Whilst no two seasons are ever the same, there is still plenty that can be gauged from looking back at historical events to qualify your analysis.

37 is the new 40

Before we get into the specifics of QPR’s current malaise, a little bit of housekeeping.

One of the most common mistakes when analysing a team’s chances of survival is referencing the old adage of needing to reach the magical 40-point mark.

If that was the case QPR would need to accrue points at a 1.67 points per game clip from here on in – which over a full season would be good enough for a European place.

If that was the case, frankly, we probably wouldn’t even have bothered putting this piece of analysis together – and Loïc Rémy would probably be house hunting on Tyneside as we speak.

Whilst on the topic, for those that are not overly familiar with QPR’s new French star, click here for some cracking insight from OPTA into what we can expect to see from him.

One thing that is in QPR’s favour is the ever-increasing strength on the league’s top sides, which has changed the way the total points pool is distributed.  The graph below shows the cumulative total points of the top six sides since 1995 and a 4-year rolling average:

Cumulative points of the top six placed teams in Premier League since 1995

Cumulative points of the top six placed teams in Premier League since 1995

As you can see, the average cumulative points of the top six has increased steadily, from circa 400 to almost 440 – an increase of more than 6 points per team.

Conversely, the table below shows the number of points achieved by the 17th placed side each season since the Premier League moved to it’s current 20 team, 38 game structure back in 1995:

Total points of the 17th placed team in Premier League since 1995

Season Points Average
1995/96 38
1996/97 41
1997/98 40
1998/99 41 40.0
1999/00 36 39.5
2000/01 42 39.8
2001/02 40 39.8
2002/03 44 40.5
2003/04 39 41.3
2004/05 34 39.3
2005/06 38 38.8
2006/07 38 37.3
2007/08 36 36.5
2008/09 35 36.8
2009/10 35 36.0
2010/11 40 36.5
2011/12 37 36.8

As you can see the number of points needed to retain a place in the top flight has decreased considerably over the last 10 years, with the four year rolling average points of the 17th place finishing side having been below 37 points for the last five years – and will likely fall even further this year.

For those who prefer a visual representation, here is the same data presented through the medium of shape:

Total points of the 17th placed team in Premier League since 1995

Total points of the 17th placed team in Premier League since 1995

The magnitude of the problem

OK, so exactly how bad are things looking for QPR?

In addition to the misguided 40-point obsession, another common error when assessing a team’s chances of survival we see a lot of is a failure to consider the relative points totals of the other teams around the foot of the table in that given season.

How many times have you heard people stating that it is “almost impossible to stay up if you are bottom at Christmas”?

That position can vary materially from one season to the next.  Bottom at Christmas but 3 points off 17th and with a game in hand, you aren’t looking too bad.  However, if you are 11 points adrift (as Mick McCarthy’s Sunderland side were back in 2005) you are fighting somewhat more of an uphill battle.  Wearing a backpack full of lead.

QPR’s current position – 5 points adrift of safety (and 8 points off 15th) with 15 games remaining – obviously isn’t great, but it could certainly be a lot worse.

How many teams do you think have been that far adrift at this stage of the season?  And how many do you think have survived?

Thankfully you don’t need to wonder for long, as we have done all the hard work for you.

Teams that were four or more points from safety after 23 games since 1995

Year Pos Team P Pt Pt/G GD to 17th to 16th to 15th
1995/96 20 Bolton Wanderers 23 13 0.57 -22 -6 -7 -8
1996/97 20 Middlesborough 23 18 0.78 -14 -5 -5 -6
1998/98 19 Charlton Athletic 23 17 0.74 -11 -5 -6 -7
1998/99 20 Nottingham Forest 23 16 0.70 -22 -6 -7 -8
1999/00 19 Sheffield Wednesday 23 16 0.70 -27 -7 -7 -11
1999/00 20 Watford 23 14 0.61 -29 -9 -9 -13
2000/01 20 Bradford City 22 15 0.68 -25 -8 -8 -8
2001/02 19 Derby County 23 19 0.83 -24 -5 -6 -6
2001/02 20 Leicester City 23 17 0.74 -25 -7 -8 -8
2002/03 19 West Bromwich Albion 23 17 0.74 -18 -4 -9 -10
2002/03 20 West Ham United 23 17 0.74 -19 -4 -9 -10
2003/04 20 Leeds United 23 17 0.74 -28 -6 -6 -6
2004/05 20 West Bromwich Albion 23 13 0.57 -27 -5 -12 -12
2005/06 18 Birmingham City 22 19 0.86 -11 -4 -6 -7
2005/06 19 Portsmouth 23 17 0.74 -23 -6 -8 -9
2005/06 20 Sunderland 23 9 0.39 -26 -14 -16 -17
2006/07 20 Watford 23 15 0.65 -18 -7 -12 -14
2007/08 19 Fulham 23 15 0.65 -19 -5 -5 -6
2007/08 20 Derby County 23 7 0.30 -39 -13 -13 -14
2009/10 20 Portsmouth 22 15 0.68 -16 -6 -6 -6
2011/12 20 Wigan Athletic 23 15 0.65 -28 -5 -6 -11
2012/13 20 Queens Park Rangers 23 15 0.65 -19 -5 -6 -8

 

Setting the precedent

There have been 21 teams who have been 4 or more points from safety after 23 games since 1995 – roughly one a season.  The table above shows their position, points tally, goal difference and the all-important number of points behind 17th, 16th and 15th place.

It is important to make sure you consider the gap between these teams around the relegation zone, not just the gap to safety, when considering a team’s chance of survival.  It is much easier to make up ground on a group of teams than it is a single team.  Similar to accumulator betting, if you are looking to the results of three or four teams you can pretty much guarantee one will slip up each week and therefore you are almost certain to make up ground on the group with every positive result.

There are probably a few names that jump out from the list above and you may now have spotted a team or two that you think managed to survive.

Let’s take a look at how they all fared and where they ended up.

End of season results for teams that were four or more points from safety

Year Pos Team P Pt Pt/G GD to 17th to 16th to 15th
1995/96 20 Bolton Wanderers 38 29 0.76 -32 -9 -9 -11
1996/97 19 Middlesborough 38 39 1.03 -9 -2 -2 -3
1998/98 18 Charlton Athletic 38 36 0.95 -15 -5 -6 -6
1998/99 20 Nottingham Forest 38 30 0.79 -34 -11 -12 -12
1999/00 19 Sheffield Wednesday 38 31 0.82 -32 -5 -7 -13
1999/00 20 Watford 38 24 0.63 -42 -12 -14 -20
2000/01 20 Bradford City 38 26 0.68 -40 -16 -16 -16
2001/02 19 Derby County 38 30 0.79 -30 -10 -10 -13
2001/02 20 Leicester City 38 28 0.74 -34 -12 -12 -15
2002/03 19 West Bromwich Albion 38 26 0.68 -36 -18 -19 -21
2002/03 18 West Ham United 38 42 1.11 -17 -2 -3 -5
2003/04 19 Leeds United 38 33 0.87 -28 -6 -8 -11
2004/05 17 West Bromwich Albion 38 34 0.89 -25 0 -5 -8
2005/06 18 Birmingham City 38 34 0.89 -22 -4 -8 -9
2005/06 17 Portsmouth 38 38 1.00 -25 0 -4 -5
2005/06 20 Sunderland 38 15 0.39 -43 -23 -27 -28
2006/07 20 Watford 38 28 0.74 -30 -10 -11 -13
2007/08 17 Fulham 38 36 0.95 -22 0 -1 -3
2007/08 20 Derby County 38 11 0.29 -69 -25 -26 -28
2009/10 20 Portsmouth 38 19 0.50 -32 -16 -17 -19
2011/12 15 Wigan Athletic 38 43 1.13 -20 6 5 0

The great escapes

As shown in the table above, four of the 21 sides managed to stay up.  On a brighter note for QPR, some of the sides above were considerably further adrift and had probably given up hope of staying up.  The four teams that have stayed up were all within six points of safety – and four from 14 (28%) – doesn’t sound quite as daunting.

Bryan Robson’s West Brom were the first team to stay up having been five points adrift at this stage – breaking the “bottom at Christmas” hoodoo at the same time.

Looking dead and buried after 23 games, they managed to win five and draw six of their remaining 15 games, securing their survival with a 2-0 home victory over Portsmouth on the final day of the season.  Kieran Richardson’s starring role in his team’s great escape even won him a few England caps that summer, including a two-goal debut against the USA.

A couple of asides on West Brom’s survival – firstly, whilst Robson may have earned himself a stay of execution at the club, he shouldn’t have been given too much credit for overseeing a survival campaign that involves accumulating 34 points.  In any other season, you are going down with that total.

Secondly, they kick started their run to survival with a surprise 2-0 home win against Manchester City in game 24.  Hmm….

The second great escape came two years later, when Portsmouth clawed back a record six-point deficit to stay up.  A certain Henry Redknapp returned to Fratton Park in December of that season, looking to resuscitate a side that was showing no signs of life under Alain Perrin.

After a slow start to his second stint in charge, new owner Alexandre Gaydamak went out and bought half of the Tottenham squad and Pompey ultimately went on to win six games out of 9 during a purple patch in March and April, to reach 38 points and secure their place in the top flight the following season with a game to spare.  Sadly, whilst it was fun at the time, this story didn’t ultimately have a happy ending for the club and its supporters.

The third great escape also involved a December managerial change, with Fulham Supremo Mohamed Al-Fayed putting Lawrie Sanchez out of his misery and making what turned out to be the very astute appointment of Roy Hodgson.   Like Harry, Roy also had a very slow start in turning his clubs fortunes around and even as late as with five games to go the Cottagers were still six points from safety.

Things looked even worse mid way through game 36, when, trailing 2-0 to Manchester City away from home, Fulham were 45 minutes from relegation.  The rest as they say, is history.  Fulham were again staring relegation square in the face on the final day of the season, until Danny Murphy scored a rare headed goal to earn Hodgson’s men their fourth win in their last five games to pull off greatest of all great escapes to date.

The most recent great escape was that of Roberto Martinez’s Wigan only last season – when the Spaniard oversaw an incredible improvement in his team’s results (and performances) – which was somewhat unprecedented without a change in regime.  Wigan were still bottom of the league in mid March, although the Latics were only one point from safety.  Again, it is always relative in a league format!

They then went on to win seven of their last nine games – including wins against Manchester United, Arsenal and Liverpool – and again secured their top flight status with a game to spare, ultimately finishing 15th.  Unbelievable Jeff.

As we all know, you don’t always get what you deserve in football, and although these four sides stayed up, there is always plenty of luck involved along the way.  Let’s have a look at how all 21 struggling sides previously mentioned performed over those last 15 games and see if that can give us some insight as to exactly what QPR might need to do over the coming months to survive.

The method behind the madness

Year Pos Team Pts/G I Pts/G II Change GD I GD II Change
1995/96 20 Bolton Wanderers 0.57 1.07 189% -0.96 -0.67 0.29
1996/97 19 Middlesborough 0.78 1.40 179% -0.61 0.33 0.94
1998/99 18 Charlton Athletic 0.74 1.27 171% -0.48 -0.27 0.21
1998/99 20 Nottingham Forest  0.70 0.93 134% -0.96 -0.80 0.16
1999/00 19 Sheffield Wednesday  0.70 1.00 144% -1.17 -0.33 0.84
1999/00 20 Watford  0.61 0.67 110% -1.26 -0.87 0.39
2000/01 20 Bradford City  0.68 0.73 108% -1.14 -0.94 0.20
2001/02 19 Derby County  0.83 0.73 89% -1.04 -0.40 0.64
2001/02 20 Leicester City  0.74 0.73 99% -1.09 -0.60 0.49
2002/03 19 West Bromwich Albion  0.74 0.60 81% -0.78 -1.20 -0.42
2002/03 18 West Ham United  0.74 1.67 225% -0.83 0.13 0.96
2003/04 19 Leeds United  0.74 1.07 144% -1.22 -0.73 0.48
2004/05 17 West Bromwich Albion  0.57 1.40 248% -1.17 0.13 1.31
2005/06 18 Birmingham City  0.86 1.00 116% -0.50 -0.69 -0.19
2005/06 17 Portsmouth  0.74 1.40 189% -1.00 -0.13 0.87
2005/06 20 Sunderland  0.39 0.40 102% -1.13 -1.13 -0.00
2006/07 20 Watford  0.65 0.87 133% -0.78 -0.80 -0.02
2007/08 17 Fulham  0.65 1.40 215% -0.83 -0.20 0.63
2007/08 20 Derby County  0.30 0.27 88% -1.70 -2.00 -0.30
2009/10 20 Portsmouth  0.68 0.27 39% -0.73 -1.00 -0.27
2011/12 15 Wigan  0.65 1.87 286% -1.22 0.53 1.75
Average 0.67 0.99 48% -0.98 -0.55 0.43

The table above shows the points per game and goal differences of the sides over the first 23 games (I) and the last 15 games (II) and the relative changes.

On average, the sides that found themselves cut adrift improved their points per game rate by 48% over the final 15 games, fro 0.67 to 0.99.  However, a large element of this improvement is to be expected through regression to the mean alone and doesn’t tell us too much.

What we are really looking to see is if team’s managed to perform at a level that warrants a place in the top flight.  Over the last few seasons, the average points per game of the side finishing 17th has been 0.94 points per game with an average goal supremacy of -0.63 per game.

Performance above these levels would indicate an improvement to a level that justifies a place in the Premier League – although performance beyond this level would obviously be needed to make up for previous losses.

Eleven teams managed to achieve the former – including all four of those discussed that survived.  Commiserations to West Ham, Middlesbrough and Charlton, who all improved markedly over the latter stages of the season, but just left themselves a little bit too much to do.  The Sir Trevor Brooking inspired Hammers of 2002/03 can count themselves the most unfortunate, having played what was at the time UEFA cup quality football over the season’s second half, yet found themselves relegated with 42 points.

However, the prize for “the greatest great escape” certainly goes to last season’s unbelievable Wigan side, who improved from a 0.65 points per game rate to a staggering 1.87 – the highest achieved by any of the qualifying sides.  And this was no fluke – their +0.53 goal supremacy rate represents solid Europa League form!

What exactly do QPR have to do to stay up?

OK, let’s get back to the here and now and QPR’s predicament.

The current market prices their chances of being relegated somewhere between 1.44 (69.4%) to 1.57 (63.7%), implying their chance of survival is circa 33% – which as a sanity check, is slightly higher than, but comparable to the historical survival rate previously mentioned of 28%.

This passes the basic smell test, and most would likely agree that QPR would be above average when compared to the sides previously listed above.

So, as previously discussed, it is likely that the team that finishes 17th will have 35-37 points.  That leaves QPR needing 20-22 points from their last 15 games, which is the equivalent to 1.33 – 1.47 points per game.

This is in line with that achieved by the other teams that have survived, with six of the 21 sides managing to improve to a points per game rate of 1.4 or higher.

It is difficult to argue that QPR are one of the top 10 teams in the league as they stand, but if Redknapp manages to add one or two players of the calibre he has been linked with in the last 24 hours (such as Scott Parker and Peter Crouch), then they would certainly close the gap on the teams that are current perceived as just that.

With Loïc Rémy already in place and what appears to be an inspired Adel Taarabt finally showing signs of delivering at the top-flight level, is it feasible that the Hoops could perform at the level associated with teams such as West Brom, Swansea and Stoke over the coming months?

The odds remain stacked against them, and our traders are currently forecasting them to come up about three points short.

But the precedent is certainly there to say that they can get themselves out of their current predicament and as they showed against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge and at home to Tottenham earlier this month, on their day they can give even the best sides a run for their money.

As the famous saying goes, where there is Harry, there is hope…