Coming To Terms With The Championship - C
Over the last few seasons, I got to know League One quite well. It had its quirky features (the Christmas time breakaway of teams in the playoff positions - generally down as far as MK Dons, the Oldham and Brentford stagnation) and it was all very familiar by this time of year. The Championship felt like a foreign country in a way even League Two didn't, and the visitors from the Championship were always strange and curious - Norwich? Southampton? Nottingham Forest? These are names from a completely different sport - even Tinie Tempah has been to one of them, while the far more League One Scunthorpe remain (to this day, as far as we know) untempahed. This is the story of me coming to terms with the Championship.
As a result of knowing the division so well, it was easy to draw conclusions about it. When you know what you're looking at, you can see what it is - even if you only see the beak, you can tell it's a duck, just as you can see a good run of form from Sheffield United in November as a precursor to that Christmas split - it might not happen just then, but the deck is being shuffled to ensure it does happen. This new division, with its oddities (Do teams get cast adrift at the bottom? Do we have runaway winners? When are the playoff spots traditionally sorted? How high do you have to be to be sure you won't be relegated?¹) is that strange foreign country that I thought it was. I want to understand it better, so I'm going to look at history, and see what it teaches me.
This season, I am mostly concerned with 'mid-table'. Those positions between safety and excitement where teams can bob along being criticised for not playing hard in games that don't matter during March and April, though still 'playing with freedom' to beat teams who 'freeze under the pressure'. I'm hopeful Huddersfield Town will be one of those teams. How many points will it require? Here's a graph, drawn as a stock chart, with the top and bottom points tallies at the extremes of the thin lines, and the 'mid-table' teams as the bar (top tallies of those who were outside the playoffs, and bottom of those who survived relegation) - anything, then, between 55 and 65 will ensure a relaxing April and May. On current schedule, Huddersfield will achieve 68 points, which is obviously good enough to survive that, but would only have been good enough for the spot just outside the playoffs once in the last 16 years (2005-06; an 8 point gap between Palace 75 and Wolves 67).
The 2012/13 bar is something of a red herring - the 34 extrapolated points differential will, undoubtedly, shrink as the season goes on (it tends to be around 20) - expect the top end to drop a little, and the bottom end to rise; it is very close at the bottom of the league at the moment. That leads nicely into the first question posed above.
Do Teams Get Cast Adrift?
Over the last 26 seasons (back to the beginning of the playoffs) the bottom team in the second tier has average 37.5 points. At just 0.82 points per game, that's a poor tally, and one you'd expect to see struggling. The lowest was Stockport in 2001/02 (26) and the highest is Luton Town in 1995/96 (45!). That is only one team in and of itself, though, and isn't representative of the distance the bottom club is 'adrift' of the rest of the table. Here's another graph, detailing the % of their points the bottom team was adrift from the clubs in 23rd, 22nd, 21st (the first surviving club - generally) and 20th.
Apart from two very obvious spikes - Stockport's 26 in comparison to 23rd placed Barnsley's 48 and 2003/04's Rotherham gaining 29 to Nottingham Forest's 44. Beyond that, there's an average as follows. From 24th to 23rd - 16% (as the 24th team averages 37.5 points, that's an average gap of 6 points - which is a lot, but not an irredeemable amount) from 24th to 22nd - 28% (that's 11 points), from 24th to 21st - 34% (13 points) and from 24th to 20th - 38% (14 points). That gap between 11 and 6 is pretty large, which would lend to me thinking that you're likely to get two teams cast adrift, and then have one really scrapping at the death. Anecdotally, that does seem to tally up with a fair few Championship seasons, too.
Do We Have Runaway Winner?
I looked at doing something similar to the graph above for this, but I don't see that it was necessary to be quite so complex; a simple 'winning points' graph with lines for 1st, 2nd and 3rd (gold, silver and bronze, of course) indicates that, no, there doesn't tend to be a 'runaway' winner - only four times since 1986/87 has the Champion been more than 10 points clear of the team in second, and only 10 times more than 10 points ahead of third (though there was a run of four in a row in the early century - Fulham, Manchester City, Portsmouth and Norwich City). The league is, it seems, too competitive at the top end to allow teams to get away too far.
When are the playoff spots traditionally sorted? How high do you have to be to be sure you won't be relegated?
These two questions strike me as being better answered when we're half way through the season - 19 games (four short of that) would, to me, be far more difficult to work out in terms of numbers than that, and 50% of the season would be a good time to take stock. I hope to do so then. For now, expect two teams to drop off the bottom, but don't expect anyone to surge away at the top.
¹For League One, the answers are as follows.
Do teams get cast adrift at the bottom? - Yes; generally one
Do we have runaway winners? - Every now and then, but you would know by November.
When are the playoff spots traditionally sorted? - By March at the latest.
How high do you have to be to be sure you won't be relegated? - There isn't the late surges, so if you're 15-16th by March-time, you'll be fine.