Relegation battles in the Premier League — the complete guide
Life at the other end
The 2018/19 season was incredible. The title race went to the final day for the first time in seven years. In contrast, the relegation battle, which usually provides many final day heroics, was mathematically settled a week before.
This season witnessed the earliest ever relegation in EPL history. Relegation often has many heuristics and benchmarks. TotalFootball looks at the theory and practicalities of relegation.
The earliest a team has been mathematically relegated from EPL is the end of March — Huddersfield Town joining Derby County’s abysmal season eleven years ago in 2007/08.
Scoring just 11 points in that season, Derby County set the record for the lowest points total and the fewest wins (just 1). They were mathematically relegated at the end of March, like Huddersfield this year, although the Terriers had scored 14 points at the time of their mathematical relegation and registered 3 wins. They ended the season on 16 points — the third lowest in Premier League history.
Trivia: Huddersfield Town won three league titles in a row between 1924–1926
40 Point Heuristic?
With Huddersfield eliminated early and Fulham following suit, the relegation scrap of the season was between Cardiff and Brighton. Cardiff’s loss in the second to last week meant Brighton were safe on 36 points with a week to go.
There’s a long-held heuristic that 40 points guarantee safety. It’s the psychological mark managers of “lower half” clubs set as their primary objective every season.
While 40 works well as a good round number and all good project managers like to build in some contingency (!), statistics show that the actual survival mark is lower. Research looking at 20 club format Premier League seasons till 2017 showed the actual relegation safety mark to be around 36.6 points. The current and last season saw 36 points guarantee safety. So statistically, the average relegation safety mark is now around 36.5 or 37 points. This season, Brighton’s total is bang on average, although, given Cardiff’s loss in GW37, even 35 points could have guaranteed Brighton’s survival.
36.5 points is an average. The range shows some variation.
The lowest total for survival was 34 points by West Bromwich Albion in 2004/05 who coupled a mere 6 wins with 16 draws to survive. West Ham, on the other hand, took fan heartache to a new level when they got relegated in 2002/03 despite scoring 42 points, the highest total for a relegated side.
- In fact, and by definition almost, 36 points have been enough to avoid relegation in 12/24 seasons or 50% of the time
- 37 points have been good enough for survival 70% of the time
- 40 points have been good enough for survival 88% of the time
The 40 point mark is an anecdotal figure. The real figure is lower and keeps dipping. As the gap between top and bottom sides increases, we see the polarisation of points — ever higher totals to secure the title and ever lower totals to avoid relegation.
However for all good managers, the appeal of a whole number which gives 90% certainty of avoiding relegation, still remains strong. 40 may no longer be the safety level but it will always remain a popular psychological target.
Another rule of thumb is that a team bottom at Christmas is relegated. Huddersfield this season replaced their coach around Christmas and were already hinting at a rebuild. So about 2 months before being mathematically relegated, perhaps they could see it coming?
The Christmas heuristic was spectacularly busted by none other than Leicester City. Bottom at Christmas and indeed until March 2015 even (the same month when teams have faced earliest mathematical relegation), their incredible run of 7 wins in 9 games sealed safety in dramatic fashion. The next season they were installed as 5000–1 odds to win the title. The rest is history.
Regardless, the situation of a team at Christmas is a good indicator of upcoming relegation. It’s a halfway mark for the season and at least 19 games are completed by then. No team has lost 22 games and survived in EPL. So the time of the 22nd defeat is a sure sign of relegation. By Christmas, if the games lost figure is getting closer to 22, and difficult fixtures are coming up, teams mentally start to prepare for relegation.
As we’ve seen from the two worst performers in EPL history, the earliest realistic point of mathematical relegation is the last game week in March — so with approximately 80% of the season played.
Relegation is a mathematical certainty when points available become less than points difference with 17th placed team. There is no fixed point as this distance could be large or small depending on how the season shapes up. However, can there be an earliest theoretical relegation point? We can develop a model to find out.
A Theoretical Model
In theory, the bottom-placed team can be relegated by the end of GW27. To achieve this, certain conditions must be met:
- The Top team wins all games
- The Bottom team (earliest relegated) loses all games
- We maximize the ceiling for the bottom team relative to the 19th placed team by assuming that the (remaining) 18 clubs split their results into thirds — win, draw, loss. This gives a higher total than having all draws.
- We assume that goal difference eliminates 19th and 18th placed teams
At the halfway mark, there are enough points left mathematically to allow any team to be safe. With our above assumptions and to ease rounding, let us jump to the end of GW22 when all teams have played 22 games. By now, our Surviving Team has played everyone at least once (19 games), has lost the reverse fixture to the Top team and won the reverse fixture against the bottom team. At the end of GW22, the Surviving Team has also played 18 games against all other sides, having won, drawn and lost a third (6) of their games.
Our Surviving Team’s stats read:
- Played 22, Won (2 + 6 = 8), Drawn (6), Lost (2 + 6 = 8) = 30 points
At the end of GW22, the Bottom Team is 30 points adrift of the Surviving Team. There are still 16 games left in the season or 48 points available. If we assume the pattern of thirds, this gap will be closed in GW26 and will go to goal difference. Since the Bottom Team will generally have a worse goal difference, relegation will be effectively confirmed on GW26 and mathematically guaranteed by the conclusion of GW27. Our Surviving Team will have 36 points (GW26) and 37 points (GW27) and by the end of February, the Bottom Team will be relegated, having 0 points.
Theory or reality?
To be clear, this is a theoretical model and the assumptions made (e.g. bottom team losing all games, etc.) would never be realistic.
In theory, we can expect the earliest relegation at the end of February with about 71% of the season played. In practice, the earliest relegations have been a month later, with about 80% of the season played. These have notably only occurred twice in 24 seasons, so for the most part, the relegation battle is more competitive and long drawn out. The points totals (36–37) have an uncanny resemblance to the statistical average we have seen in practice!
A theoretical model is good for academic illustrations. In reality, the 40 point heuristic and 36.5 point safety mark remain the best and most realistic benchmarks for the relegation battle.
The EPL is the richest and most competitive elite league in the world. The benefits of escaping relegation are immense as the prize money in the Premier League is many times that available in the Championship. By one estimate, relegation costs at least £50 million (net).
This is not to mention the potential disruption of losing best players, rebuilding a team, rehiring a coach, and winning a 24-team EFL Championship to return to the EPL. Some relegated clubs also take big risks on supposedly “high potential” players to ensure they get back to the Premier League the very next year. If these don’t pay off, a club’s financial situation can suffer drastically, adding further insult to injury.
Indeed, even after promotion is achieved, the team faces another rebuild to ensure it has sufficient quality to compete in the Premier League. This could bring its own risks. If big transfer outlays on players fail to pay off (like Fulham), then it’s another relegation, financial loss notwithstanding. Yo-Yo clubs can gain some benefits from parachute payments and promotion money. However, when we balance financial net loss and disruption, nothing beats the stability of a long stay in the Premier League. The tentacles of relegation can stretch into future seasons.
Relegation is worth avoiding every time. Statistically, 37 should be enough for survival. This roughly equates to 9 wins and 10 draws per season. This is exactly what Huddersfield Town managed last season — and escaped!
The points required for survival are gradually dropping. The consequences of a fall are disproportionately increasing every season.
Relegation is a gladiatorial battle where clubs risk everything for survival. A brutal spectacle that never ceases to captivate. On the final day of the season, the winner will walk away with the Trophy. Their joy will only be rivaled by the 17th place club that has avoided relegation and lived to fight another day.