How many points are needed to reach the Championship play-offs?
It offers you hope. It plunges you into despair. The strength of its grip increases the longer the sun stays in the sky each evening. Until the dreaded mathematical impossibility comes into play. Then it’s all over. It’s PO the PO and it’s an obsession throughout the Football League at this time of year. If your team are currently between seventh and twelfth in their division, you probably know exactly how many points they are off the play-offs.
In the Championship, the points tallies between fourth position and twelfth currently read: 59, 58, 57, 57, 56, 56, 53, 51, 49. The gap from Brighton in 5th to Crystal Palace in 12th looks unbridgeable with the end of the season just six weeks away, but the Eagles have a game in hand on the Seagulls. If, helpfully, it was tomorrow (which it isn’t) and they won (which they might not), that gap would close to just six points with ten games to play. In short, it’s tighter than the Ken Bates transfer fund.
The fact that the teams involved have played differing amounts of games means it makes more sense to refer to points per game rather than a straightforward points tally, but this also helps to understand the task ahead. Seven of the twelve teams in the top half of the Championship have ten games remaining. If we take 8th March 2011 as the corresponding point last season, eventual champions Queen’s Park Rangers had, up to that point, averaged 1.94 points per game. Southampton have amassed 1.92 points per game, with West Ham managing 1.89 and Reading 1.86.
Some managers may see this last ten-game stretch as a mini-league, whereby the entire campaign to date can be thrown out of the window and everyone starts again from square one. This is certainly thinking that would be supported by taking a look at the lessons of the previous season. Up until 8th March 2011, Reading averaged 1.50 points per game so may as well have won one and lost one alternately until that point. From thereon in, they averaged an incredible 2.36 points per game.
And that kind of run doesn’t seem fanciful to sides at present either, because the Royals have also won eight and drawn one of their last nine games to storm into automatic promotion contention. Supporters, chairmen and even managers at a number of clubs will be wondering why their players can’t achieve the same startling improvement in form as the season reaches its climax.
Norwich, who overhauled Cardiff to snatch second place last May, also improved their points-per-game average from 1.75 in the first 36 games of the season to 2.18 during the last 10. Interestingly, three teams who achieved key milestones suffered a dip in performance in those final few weeks (champions QPR, Swansea City, who won the play-offs, and Nottingham Forest, who pipped Leeds to 6th position in the last week of the season despite a generally poor few months). For the record, Forest ended 2010/11 with 75 points.
The points distribution at this point last year was slightly different though. The tallies between fourth and twelfth contrasting with the current state of play listed above: 61, 60, 59, 56, 54, 52, 52, 50, 50. As things stood, the race for automatic promotion went all the way down to Forest in 6th. At the moment, it looks as though just three teams will be in contention: Southampton, Reading and West Ham.
This isn’t always the case. Sometimes the top two already looks fairly certain. Sometimes there are more teams in the mix for automatic promotion. In fact, the points distribution in the top half of the Championship looks very similar to the situation on 8th March 2005, when most teams had played 36 games. Wigan, like Southampton now, had 69 points from their first 36 games. Sunderland and Ipswich, like Reading and West Ham now, were both within three points of the leaders. Then it went: 60, 59, 54, 54, 54, 51, 51, 51, 49. And as at present, there was scope for the team in twelfth to play catch-up. Back then, it was Queen’s Park Rangers who were eleven points behind Derby in fourth with two games in hand.
From that point onwards, only one team in the division managed more than two points per game over their last ten matches. That team was Sunderland, who roared to the title by only dropping five points from the last 30 on offer. To put that into perspective, Ipswich were the second most impressive performers in the top half over those last ten games and they dropped eleven points in the same timeframe to finish nine adrift of the Mackems.
And here’s the key point really: if Stoke City, eleventh on 8th March 2005, had achieved that magical two points per game target (win your home games and draw away) that so many supporters talk about, even if they had only managed it during their last eleven games, they would have ended the season on 73 points. In addition, at least one of those points would probably have come in their home game with West Ham, who actually finished on 73 points and took the final play-off place on offer. As it was, Stoke lost 1-0 when the Hammers visited on 19th April 2005 and took just 10 points from their final 11 games, losing six of their last eight.
Reading just missed out on the play-offs that season, finishing three points adrift of West Ham after they also limped over the line with three defeats in a row. They had given themselves a chance with five wins from their previous seven but, prior to that, they hadn’t won for eleven games. Winning and losing sequences can change dramatically, even at this late stage of the season.
Incidentally, most play-off chasing teams took a similar number of points from the games they played after 8th March 2005. Derby, Preston and Reading all claimed 16 points in that period, while Millwall took 15 and Sheffield United and QPR both managed 13. It looks probable that any team that can match West Ham’s late form that season (19 points from their last 10 games – DDWWWDWDLW in chronological order) will emulate the Hammers to sneak into the top six. If Blackpool, currently 9th, achieved those results from now until the end of the season, they would reach the same 75 point total that Forest accumulated during the last campaign.
West Ham, however, ended the 2004/05 season on 73 points, a total that looks the best benchmark for those involved at present. Which would leave the current Palace side, for instance, needing 24 points from their last 11 games – just over that two points per game average.
To put the two points-per-game average into context, only four teams in the top four divisions have achieved it over the course of the season so far: Manchester United (2.39), Manchester City (2.36), Charlton Athletic (2.17) and Swindon Town (2.09). Of particular interest here are the points per game averages of overachieving Newcastle United (just 1.57) and Huddersfield Town in League One, who have only lost three games all season (1.83).
So can your team rack up 20 points from their last 10 games?