Stayin’ Alive: The Ultimate Premier League Survival Guide
What is the successful formula to avoiding relegation as a newly promoted team in the Premier League? We’ve got the answer for you.
With the gap between the top tiers of English football seemingly wider than it’s ever been, the fight for Premier League survival among promoted teams can feel like a season-long affair these days.
This time around, Fulham, Bournemouth and Nottingham Forest will attempt to bridge the chasm, and they’ll know as well as anyone that it won’t be easy – but they might be able to learn some lessons about what (not) to do from the fates and fortunes of promoted sides in previous campaigns.
Set Your Stall Out
In 30 Premier League seasons, none of the 14 promoted teams to collect eight or more points from their opening five games have gone straight back down. A good start tends to equal a good campaign (shocker, right?).
Brentford secured the magic eight points from their first five fixtures last term – marking their Premier League debut in style with a famous 2-0 home win over Arsenal – and went on to finish 13th, eight points clear of the drop zone. The previous new boys to do so were the 2018-19 Wolves’ side – who returned to the top flight in style, racking up 57 points (the most by a promoted side in 18 years) to come seventh.
Best Points Tallies for Newly Promoted Teams After Five Games
Nottingham Forest in 1994-95 (Finished 3rd)
Blackburn Rovers in 1992-93 (Finished 4th)
Bolton Wanderers in 2001-02 (Finished 16th)
West Ham United in 2005-06 (Finished 9th)
Portsmouth in 2003-04 (Finished 13th)
Reading in 2006-07 (Finished 8th)
Newcastle United in 2017-18 (Finished 10th)
Middlesbrough in 1998-99 (Finished 9th)
Hull City in 2008-09 (Finished 17th)
West Ham United in 2012-13 (Finished 10th)
Leicester City in 2014-15 (Finished 14th)
Huddersfield Town in 2017-18 (Finished 16th)
Wolverhampton Wanderers in 2018-19 (Finished 7th)
Brentford in 2021-22 (Finished 13th)
Conversely, only one team has survived having failed to put a point on the board in their first four outings following promotion: 2012-13 Southampton – who lost to Manchester City, Wigan, Manchester United and were drubbed 6-1 by Arsenal, before eventually getting off the mark by beating Aston Villa 4-1.
Last season, Norwich made the third-worst start in Premier League history – and the outright worst by a promoted team – losing their opening six matches. As is customary for the yo-yo club laureate, they were relegated – finishing bottom.
One team has stayed up after an even poorer start, though: Crystal Palace, who suffered seven straight defeats at the start of 2017-18 (without scoring a single goal) – four under Frank de Boer then three under Roy Hodgson, who miraculously guided them to 11th in the end.
Which of the latest promoted trio looks likeliest to fly out of the traps, then?
Well, on paper, Bournemouth appear to have the hardest early-season schedule: they play Aston Villa (home), Man City (away), Arsenal (home), Liverpool (away) and Wolves (home), whose average final position in 2021-22 was 6.4.
Fulham come up against five teams with an average 2021-22 final placing of 7.8, facing Liverpool (home), Wolves (away), Brentford (home), Arsenal (away) and Brighton (home). Likewise Forest, who take on Newcastle (away), West Ham (home), Everton (away), Tottenham (home) and City (away).
Let’s be honest, we’re splitting hairs a bit here; those are all tough starts, with each side encountering at least one of last term’s top two plus at least one of third to fifth.
It’s certainly hard to envisage all three promoted sides winning on the opening weekend of the campaign. The last time that each newly promoted team won their first game in a top-flight season was way back in 1958-59, when West Ham United and Blackburn Rovers both enjoyed victories away from home against Portsmouth (2-1) and Newcastle (5-1) respectively.
Stick or Twist?
How important is sticking to the style that earned you promotion when it comes to making it stick in your first season (back) in the Premier League?
Arguably the most important factor to consider here is to what extent a team alters their approach from that which got them up in the first place – something we can broadly assess using two metrics: passes per sequence (the average number of passes per open-play sequence) and direct speed. A scour through such data from the past five Premier League seasons produces a couple of nuggets of interest which are worth highlighting.
Of the last 15 promoted teams, none have fiddled with their approach as little as Brighton.
Enroute to amassing 93 points as Championship runners-up in 2016-17, the Seagulls averaged 2.95 passes/sequence and had a median (which we’ve used to prevent extreme values giving a skewed average) direct speed of 1.54 metres/second. In their first Premier League campaign – which they safely navigated to finish 17th – those figures decreased by 0.03% and increased by 0.02% respectively. Manager Chris Hughton’s thinking seemed to be, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”.
In 2019-20, Marcelo Bielsa surprised no one by continuing to uphold the very footballing philosophy which saw him nicknamed El Loco. Not only did that mean Leeds – back in the top flight for the first time since 2003-04 – topped the league for sprints per game (170), distance sprinted per game (2.91 kilometres) and passes per defensive action (9.3), but they also profiled very similarly stylistically to how they did their Championship title-winning campaign – going from an average of 3.34 passes/sequence to 3.46, and from a median direct speed of 1.65 m/s to 1.61. And you could say it would worked quite well… The Whites finished ninth with 59 points – the fifth-most by a promoted side in Premier League history.
At the other end of the spectrum, we find 2020-21 West Brom, and last term’s Norwich and Watford.
All three sides diverged from the possession-based game which had got them promoted – and all three crashed and burned in the Premier League, with West Brom and Watford finishing 19th and Norwich bottom of the pile.
Some level of stylistic shift can be necessary, but the numbers suggest that these teams went a bit too far: West Brom’s average passes/sequence went down by 0.65, Watford’s by 0.66 and Norwich’s by a fairly dramatic 0.90. Of course, the fact that all three made a change in the dugout (in Watford’s case, two changes) during the season probably played its part…
So, what should we expect from Fulham, Bournemouth and Forest as they try to make the transition to the top flight?
Well, in Marco Silva, Scott Parker and Steve Cooper, all three are coached by relatively young managers (all are in their early to mid-40s) with clearly defined footballing philosophies – and there’s little to indicate that they’ll deviate from them.
A Balancing Act
“Defense wins championships,” they say in America – but they don’t say anything about a robust rearguard ensuring survival (which is hardly surprising for a country where relegation is a relatively alien concept). So, let’s find out for ourselves; what does history suggest is more integral to a promoted team’s hopes of avoiding relegation: being strong at the back or potent in attack? Or is it really all about balance?
Since 2003-04, nine promoted sides have finished with one of the season’s top 10 defensive records: Reading in 2006-07; Birmingham in 2009-10; Crystal Palace in 2013-14; Watford in 2015-16; Middlesbrough in 2016-17; Newcastle and Brighton in 2017-18; Wolves in 2018-19; and Sheffield United in 2019-20. Only Middlesbrough were relegated – largely because they mustered a mere 27 goals of their own. Chris Wilder’s Sheffield United and their inverted centre-halves bamboozled their way to a ninth-placed finish, conceding just 39 goals – the fewest outside the top three (Liverpool, City and United).
Over the same period, nine promoted teams have also finished with one of the campaign’s top 10 offensive records: West Ham in 2005-06; that great 2006-07 Reading side again; Birmingham in 2007-08; Newcastle, West Brom and Ian Holloway’s cult Blackpool team in 2010-11; Norwich in 2011-12; Southampton in 2012-13; and Leeds in 2020-21. Only Birmingham and Blackpool were relegated – both by a single point, the former succumbing to nine of their 19 defeats by a single goal, the latter’s more than adequate scoring output (55 goals) undermined by their league-worst defence (78 goals conceded).
If you can position yourself in the upper half of the league in terms of attacking or defensive performance, then you’re generally going to be just fine – as long as you strike a reasonable balance. And while it remains to be seen whether or not the 2022-23 new boys can adapt to the entirely different kettle of fish that is the Premier League, they were the three most balanced teams in the Championship last season per their offensive and defensive records.
The Importance of ‘Fortress X’
We’ve seen that eight is the magic number when it comes to points from the opening five games of your first season (back) in the Premier League – and the same is almost true where home record is concerned.
In the 20-team era (since 1995-96), 24 promoted sides have won eight or more of their home games – and 23 of them have avoided the drop. The sole exception? Hull, who recorded eight victories and four draws at home in 2016-17 – but, after winning their first away match at Swansea, took just three points from the remaining 54 available on the road. They were relegated by six points.
Based on that historical data, a promoted team who picks up eight or more home victories has a 95.8% chance of staying up. And, as if to emphasise the apparent power of the number eight, winning just one fewer home game reduces that probability to 63.1%.
Still, those are pretty good odds – and promoted sides have needed an average of 6.7 home wins to secure safety, although Hull somehow survived their first top-flight campaign (2008-09) with a record-low three home wins.
So, Fulham, Bournemouth and Forest probably only need make their respective homes modest castles rather than full-on fortresses (‘Fortress Vitality Stadium’ and ‘Fortress City Ground’ don’t exactly roll off the tongue anyway). We say ‘probably’ because Bournemouth themselves went and finished 16th despite averaging just 1.05 points per home game in their debut Premier League campaign (2015-16) – the second-lowest by a promoted team in the history of the division, behind the aforementioned Hull team of 2008-09 (0.74).
But wait… There’s another (almost) magic number: 1.53. Twenty-six promoted sides have averaged that many points or more per home game in their first season following promotion, and only one – Bolton in 1997-98 – have gone down.
TL;DR: collect just over half the home points on offer and there’s a 96.1% chance you’ll be safe.
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