Jonathan Wilson is by far my favourite football writer. He's the man mostly responsibly for my switch from being a baseball blogger to a soccer one, and so I'm not really that comfortable with replying to one of his posts, but I thought that his article on whether the timing of point accumulation matters was worth expanding upon. Naturally, this comes with a Chelsea tilt - I'll focus on the top of the table here, specifically on the champions for the past five seasons.
Chelsea have won the Premier League title twice since the 2005/06 season, bracketing a trio of Manchester United triumphs. Over that time, the champions have averaged 89 points per season, the highest tally being Chelsea's earlier win at 91 points and the lowest last year's at 86. In the five years that I looked at, no team has earned more than 86 points and failed to win the title, and only once (Liverpool in 2008/09) has the second place team even reached 86 points.
I was curious as to what made the 'profile', if you like, of a championship season. Where did successful teams earn most of their points, and where were they vulnerable. I'm of the opinion that the actual team (i.e. Chelsea or United) doesn't matter, and we should instead look at the profile of team X who happened to be champions, rather than focusing on individual clubs.
I took five game moving point accumulation averages for each of the past five seasons' winners, then averaged those out again to give me the five-game rolling points averages for our platonic champions. Then I zeroed the result around the 89 points per 38 games mark, and came up with the following:
Figure 1: 5-game point rolling averages compared to seasonal averages for the Premier League champions, 2006-2010.
Using this graph, we can identify areas in the season where champions gain more points than usual and when they drop them. Unsurprisingly, we find a big drop at the end of the season, primarily due to teams having clinched titles and fielding weaker sides as a response. However, that's not the only big drop, as we see the top team dropping a significant number of points in the area around weeks 25-30 - in other worlds, in January-March.
The whys are pretty obvious: This is where both the Champions League and the FA Cup start to get difficult and also begin to impose a major burden on the schedule of the best teams. I haven't yet conducted a solid study on how teams play based on the number of days rest they have (it's coming), but most would agree that more rest means you're more likely to be fielding your preferred XI, and they are in turn more likely to be at their best. It's no surprise that as the fixtures start to get tighter and tighter for the best team in the league, they start to drop points to inferior opposition who don't have the same burden to bear. If your team has to face a top side, best to do it at home in February.
This brings us to the last major area of dropped points; the very beginning of the season. It's nowhere near as significant a dip as the end of the year or the time between mid-January and mid-March, but the champions (typically Manchester United) have had a habit of dropping a few points early and having to come back from the hole. Now, the graph is independent of fixture lists and schedules - it's possible that the Premier League has influenced things by stacking difficult games at certain times of the season, but a cursory inspection shows that this probably isn't the case.
With Chelsea's roaring start to the season, they're already about three points ahead of our platonic champions. We can attribute this to the strength of the opposition, and it's true that Chelsea have, so far, faced the easiest schedule in the league. Clearly that has an impact on point expectancy vs. playing a more difficult set of games. However, they've still achieved the maximum points, which is never a guarantee in football. Against Blackpool, for example, Chelsea were expected to drop about 0.7 points. Against Wigan? 0.5. Upsets are everywhere and the Blues have avoided them so far.
Does it matter that it's been a cakewalk until now? Yes, in terms of Chelsea's point accumulation. It's made life easier now while making things a little more difficult down the road. However, even if you gave Chelsea an 80% chance of winning each match (much too high), the chances of them being perfect through five games are less than one in three. What matters more than the schedule is the result, by a long, long way. The Blues haven't slipped up yet, which is more than Arsenal, United, and City can say, and so now they have some breathing room between both their closest rivals for the crown and the typical title-winning season.