How important is a good start to the season?
As the new season gets under way, fans who have waited patiently for months to see their teams in action can be forgiven for poring over every detail of their first few performances. There are always a few big clubs who stumble out of the blocks and a few small ones who surprise everyone with their early results, but just how important is a good start to the season?
We’ve looked back at 20 years’ worth of results in the ‘big five’ European divisions to see just how much the early matches of a season usually tell us about how the rest of the campaign will pan out.
The title race
Even a poor showing after just five games is usually enough to cost a club their shot at the title. Only three of the last 100 league champions across the big five divisions sat in the bottom half of the table after five games – two in Germany and one in Italy.
In the Premier League, only one club has recovered from lower than sixth to claim the title at this stage: under Sir Alex Ferguson, Manchester United have done so three times, but they have been a rare exception in a competitive league.
After 10 matches the picture is even clearer, with over half of the eventual champions in both Germany and Italy – plus almost half in England and Spain – already occupying top spot. France’s Ligue 1 is the only one of the five where the title winners typically take longer to assert themselves.
Champions League qualification
The Premier League is also particularly unforgiving of a poor start to a challenge for a Champions League place. Only six of the last 80 English clubs to have finished in a top-four spot were outside the top half after five matches and all ended up in third place or lower.
Across the big five leagues, over half of all eventual Champions League qualifiers were already in place even at this early stage, including almost two thirds of La Liga’s representatives.
Again at the 10-match stage the picture is even more settled, with over two thirds of Champions League places occupied by eventual qualifiers. In Italy almost two thirds are already spoken for, although in France – the only division which has three spots instead of four – almost half of teams have yet to stake their claim.
The Premier League is the least likely place to witness a club recover successfully from a poor start, with only one team having risen from the bottom half after 10 matches to finish in the top four: Liverpool finished fourth way back in 1999/2000 despite sitting 11th at this stage.
The relegation battle
The English top flight is also the place in which a good start inoculates you most effectively from a relegation battle. Even after just five matches, clubs sitting in the top half are usually safe, with nobody in the last two decades having finished in the bottom three after sitting higher than ninth at this stage.
By comparison, a good start to a Bundesliga campaign is far less valuable, with over a quarter of teams who ended up in the relegation places having sat in the top half at this stage and only a third finding themselves in the danger zone already. In fact three of the last 20 clubs to have occupied fifth place after five matches were relegated at the end of the season.
After 10 games the picture is more clear though, particularly in Serie A, the Premier League and Ligue 1 where over half of all teams who went on to finish in the bottom three were already there. The Italian top flight is the toughest of all to survive a poor start in, particularly in recent years with 12 of the last 18 clubs to have sat in the relegation zone at this stage also finishing the season there.
There’s far more cause for optimism in LaLiga, where only one in three clubs who ended up in the bottom three found themselves there after their first 10 matches.
To avoid muddying the waters we’ve ignored points deductions when calculating historical league tables as these are rare and don’t usually relate to performances on the football pitch. We’ve also corrected for rescheduled matches so that we’re always comparing teams after the same number of games played.
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