The word ‘winningest’ is stupid. Let’s just get that out there now. Its existence implies a comparative ‘winninger’ (which isn’t a comment on the Arsenal manager’s previous performances, though could be) which is even more stupid, and ‘losingest’ which is bafflingly stupid.
Listening to the Times podcast this morning, there was a discussion about whether, a few years ago, it was a silly statement that teams could only lose four games if they wanted to win the Premiership. Of course, such a statement held true for two years in the mid noughties (Arsenal’s unbeaten season, and Chelsea the year after) but it was always ludicrous. Champion teams have lost fewer than 10% of their games on only 15 of 113 league seasons (that’s 13%, percentage fans) and it remains a fact that after Preston North End in 1888/89, only two teams did it before the 1970s. Eat this graph (decades with fewer than 10 seasons are asterisked) for proof that its becoming more common as the league becomes less competitive, but it will never be a pre-requisite.
The trend we’re seeing now, though, is not ‘not losing’, its ‘winning’. Of those 113 seasons, 28 have seen the Champion team winning more than 2/3 of their games. Obviously, Preston stand out here, again, but this is a more observable trend in the long term, and its more explicable, too. Look at the same bar chart but for these teams – who, in this 3 points for a win, 38 game season, are guaranteeing themselves at least 78 points per season. 2/3 of 38 (total number of games) is 25.3. You can’t win .3 of a game, so that means that they’ve won 26 games, which tallies out at 78 points; not including draws. I’ve balanced these bars next to the number of seasons in each decade, too, to further illustrate my point.
I’d say the explanations I need here are threefold, and a nod.
First the nod. Its nice to see teams who were renowned for good, attacking play like the Spurs team of Bill Nicholson (1960/61) and the Wolves team of Stan Cullis (1957/58, 1958/59) and even, happily enough, the Busby Babes (1956/57) and the great Liverpool team of 1978/79. Hats off to you all, sweeping your opposition aside when wins were (evidently) harder to come by.
First, the explanation for the left hand side of the graph. When the Football League started, teams were not particularly equal in ability – the good were very good, the average were very poor. That situation eased as we entered the 20th century (as you can tell), after which, during the next 100 or so years, it took a particularly exceptional team (and manager, in a lot of cases; Chapman, Revie, etc) to get to that level again.
I expected the graphs to rise a little in the early 80s in sympathy with the league adopting 3 points for a win, but it doesn’t seem the extra reward made the better teams any more likely to exert their ability on the lesser teams. The gap in quality was, obviously, less in the 1980s. Its worth pointing out that that didn’t mean for a more competitive league in some terms (Liverpool won the league 6 times, Everton twice and Aston Villa and Arsenal both once each – only four teams during that spell) but those teams were less dominant over the rest of the league than today’s ‘likely candidates’.
Since the financial boom in the Premiership has really taken hold, we’ve seen the winning team being (generally) utterly dominant. The three teams during that period who weren’t over 2/3 victories were all Manchester Utd; in 00/01 (63.15%), 02/03 (65.79%) and 10/11 (60.53%) – the Red Devils mopping up the leftovers when the others have left the table. I wouldn’t bet against them doing the same this season, too.
The Premier League has become unbalanced at the top end. It’s an obvious statement, but the amount of games the champions win indicates that there’s no competition between top and bottom at the moment – there really hasn’t been for 15 years or so. On the self-same podcast today, they talked of QPR getting a ‘bonus’ point by virtue of holding one of the dominant teams to a draw. At home. I could understand if the Rs had gone to White Hart Lane and not expected a point, but if their defeat at home is so bound to occur that anything other than that is regarded as a ‘bonus’, then there’s some real problems of competition.
The obvious reason for this is the financial disparity between Premier League clubs, and the longer it goes on, the more difficult it is, and it will become, to break into the top group; Tottenham are just about there, Everton have a chance, Liverpool’s history and fanbase may support them back into it, but its tough to see where anyone else will come from and, as such, as those few teams trade blows, they are so superior to the rest that only the 10 games against the other ‘top’ teams is one they won’t expect to win. Obviously, none of the top six will win ALL the ‘other’ games, but they constitute 28 games there they’re expected to win, both home and away (not remain unbeaten in, but win – and listen to the fans and the media if they don’t win two of those in a row) which would take them to that mark back above 67% again.
The top teams, and most particularly the champion team, has become the one that swats away the ‘others’ with the most ease each season. I’ve worked a line graph balancing the wins/losses by percentage of the Champion of England. The amount of wins is rising, again, having dipped during the 20th century. The amount of defeats has fallen, gradually, as time goes on – we’ve obviously been working towards this situation for a while.
In short, its not a case of ‘you can’t win the league if you lose five games’ as ‘you can’t win the league if you don’t win twenty-eight’ games. Drawing is no good, losing is no good. Its all out wins against the lesser teams or you won’t be champions of England, and even then, you might need to thrash them by more than your closest rivals to make sure.
I have to say, I’m quite intrigued by this. You might well see more win ratios from other leagues in future (particularly not top flights)