With the release of the Premier League fixture list on Wednesday came articles like ‘Southampton captain Adam Lallana believes his side's opening fixtures are more "winnable" than last season'. That got me to thinking whether or not he is actually right and I was sufficiently bored of reading lies about transfers and what The Adjective One thinks about things that I decided to put some numbers together and see if it can be quantified.
Those of you that follow American sports will be familiar with the concept of ‘strength of schedule'. For the rest of you, it is a measure of how good your opponents are. In leagues like the NFL, a team will only play some of the other teams in any given season and therefore they quality of the teams you play against could be vastly different than the quality of teams somebody else plays against.
Typically, strength of schedule is not something that is applied to the Premier League. Given that every team plays each other twice, the strength of schedule will be broadly the same when looked at over the course of a season (although, for example, West Ham's schedule would be slightly more difficult than City's because City don't have to play themselves). However, now that the fixture list has been released, we can look at how difficult defined periods of the season seem to be for different teams. Which teams will have an easier start to the season? Which teams have a hellish run-in to look forward to?
To get a measure of strength of schedule, I took the number of points a team gained last season and divided by the maximum number of points. This was then averaged for each team's fixture list over the periods to be considered. In addition, I separated point totals for home and away records in an attempt to account for home advantage. For the newly promoted teams, I assumed that Cardiff, Hull and Palace would be roughly equivalent to 18th, 19th and 20th place last season respectively.
As an example, Everton took 42 of a possible 57 points in home games last year, so a trip to Goodison Park has been allocated a difficulty rating of 42/57 = 0.737. In contrast, the Toffees only managed to pick up 21 points on the road, so a visit from the Evertonians is only allocated a rating of 0.368.
To the charts!
So from these tables, you can see that Chelsea have a relatively middle of the pack first 5 games, where trips to Old Trafford and Goodison Park are cancelled out by hosting Hull, Villa and Fulham, but also playing Tottenham and City early means we have among the most difficult first 10 games in the league. On the other side of that coin, Spurs face all three newly promoted sides as well as Villa, West Ham and Norwich in order to claim the easiest opening in the league.
The most important point to take from this is that we shouldn't overreact if Chelsea get off to a rocky start to the season. Spurs, Liverpool, City, United and Arsenal will all be facing relatively easy competition to start the year, while Chelsea will be playing more difficult opposition. This should be offset by easier fixtures later on, but it does show that we might need to exercise a little patience early on (which, if the comments sections here are anything to go by, most of us aren't good at).
It also seems like Lallana may have had a point with their opening fixtures having slightly below average difficulty.
These next two tables show that Chelsea are going to experience a relatively soft run to finish the year. This should be a real help if we're in a position where the games still matter at that point. Conversely, if Norwich get caught up in a relegation battle, finishing the year with trips to Old Trafford and Stamford Bridge and visits from Liverpool and Arsenal means they're gonna have a really tough time staying up.
EDIT: Updated the graph to account for the fact that, unfortunately, Tottenham is still a real thing.
I decided it might be easier to see how this changes over the course of a season in the form of a graph where the top-5 from last season have their strength of schedule broken down by month. It's a little difficult to see, but hopefully this can be of some use. It seems like even though Chelsea might have a tricky start, it really should be relatively plain sailing from there.
Obviously this will all change when fixtures are moved to make space for cup ties and it's not at all scientific, but it's silly season so I've drawn some conclusions anyway. Hopefully it's at least been a little more interesting than some of the fixture ‘analysis' that's been floating around since the FA made their announcement.