The Premier League is the most watched football division in the world, and is often heralded as being the most competitive too. Rising stars of the playing and managerial world flock to the Premier League to prove their ability in English football and achieve global recognition for their talents.
In the 19 seasons of a 20 team Premier League, just five teams have gone on to win the title – Manchester United, Blackburn Rovers, Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester City. Each of these teams spent big on recruiting the best players available to them; each demonstrated considerable physical and mental strength throughout the campaign; and each produced moments of fantastic skill and guile to overcome their opponents.
But taking an overview of the numbers from the last two decades of Premier League football, what kind of targets does a team setting out to mount a title campaign need to set if it is realistically going to stand a chance of succeeding?
How many points do you need to win the league? This has varied from a low of 75 points notched by Manchester United in 1996/7 to an incredible high of 95 points recorded by Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea in 2004/5.
On average, the team that has triumphed in the Premier League has achieved 86 points. On only three occasions has a team won the title with fewer than 80 points, and no side has done so in the last fifteen years. On the flipside, 13 teams have notched over 80 points (sometimes within the same individual campaign) and failed to triumph.
This means that to stand a chance of winning the Premier League, teams need to average over two points per game – yet on 13 occasions out of the last 19 seasons, at least one side achieved a points per game average of over two, and still failed to win the league.
How many defeats can a team looking to win the league afford? On average, Premier League title winners tend to lose just four games across the entire 38 game season – just over 10% of their games.
But this headline stat can be misleading, given it is skewed by the fact that Arsenal won the title by going unbeaten for the whole season, and the following year, Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea lost just a single game. Indeed on 14 separate occasions the title winning side has lost more than four games.
However, a team has never won the title having lost more than six games.
Does the team that scores most always win the league? Given the need to secure over two points per game, it shouldn’t be too surprising that the team that wins the league also tends to be one of the most deadly in front of goal. In 13 of the last 19 seasons, the team that has scored the most goals has indeed gone on to win the league – in other words, in two thirds of 20 team Premier League seasons, the most prolific side has triumphed.
Notable exceptions have included Arsenal’s 1997/8 title triumph, when they were outscored by runners up Manchester United, and fourth placed Chelsea, and Manchester United’s title win of 2002/3, when the Gunners scored 11 more goals, but finished five points behind the Red Devils.
Furthermore, on only two occasions has a team won the league while scoring fewer than 70 goals – the aforementioned Arsenal triumph in the late nineties, alongwith Manchester United’s title winning campaign in 2008.
How valuable is it to have the meanest defence? In headline terms, the answer is less valuable than having the most effective attack. On just eight occasions in the last 19 seasons has the team that has conceded the fewest number of goals also won the title – two of which were Jose Mourinho’s resolute Chelsea side of the mid ‘naughties’.
That is not to say a good defence is not a pre-requisite for a title winning side – no team that has conceded more than 45 goals in a season has ever won the league title, and over the last ten years of Premier League football, that figure has invariable been closer to 25.
Overall, the team with the best goal difference has triumphed in 15 of the last 19 seasons – which just goes to emphasise the importance of having both a strong attack, and strong defence.
What does this mean for the forthcoming Premier League title race?
Firstly it explains why those sides preparing for a run at top spot – Manchester City, Arsenal, Chelsea – have already been expanding their squads with yet more top quality talent – when losing any more than six games in any one season essentially rules out securing first position, squad depth is absolutely key.
Second, it puts a heavy emphasis on new arrivals Diego Costa, Cesc Fabregas and Alexis Sanchez to get the goals Chelsea and Arsenal will need to challenge, and on the Liverpool hierarchy to get the transition in to a post-Suarez world right.
Third, even with the arrival of van Gaal to Manchester United, the data highlights that their ability to defend without the likes of Rio Ferdinand or Nemanja Vidic will be crucial to the Red Devils re-asserting themselves at the very top of the table.
Finally the data also reminds us that the hyperbole surrounding the Premier League as being such a tough and competitive league is not just marketing spin. Arguments will continue as to whether La Liga, the Bundesliga or the Premier League represent the best that global football has to offer, but it can’t be denied that to win a Premier League title requires a gargantuan effort.