Every new season starts off a bit like former United States Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld talking out of his backside:
“We know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don’t know we don’t know.”
As Newcastle United fans going into the new season you could say a known known is Rafa Benitez being a world class manager. Whether being a world class manager suits the unrefined grind of the Championship could be regarded as a known unknown, and perhaps the biggest unknown unknown is the Championship itself.
The league we now find ourselves in appears to be one of great volatility.
Only nine out of the twenty four – or eighteen if you want to account for the six that automatically move – have been in the league longer than two seasons, prior to the start of the new one. Of those nine, only four have shown any sort of consistency in terms of league placement; Brighton finished twentieth in 14-15 before missing out on automatic promotion by two goals the following year.
The Premier League this is not – predicting the top teams or the strugglers isn’t as easy as saying Man City are likely to do well while West Brom will fight it out in the bottom third. Instead the competitive gulf between leagues has narrowed and the churn of promotion and relegation scarifies any competitive imbalance and creates a void to be filled.
Does finishing in the bottom three of the Premier League make you a better team than those who finished in the top half of the Championship?
Historically the answer to this question is a resounding no – on average only one of the three relegated sides bounces straight back up, while some come close to touching the sun only to melt and plummet (I’m looking at you Wigan).
At the other end of the spectrum, teams promoted to the Championship have performed increasingly well: Bournemouth won the league in their second season having finished a respectable tenth in their first, Brentford were in the playoffs in their first season, while both Preston and Bristol finished in respectful positions last year.
Both of the above factors turn the league into a competitive anomaly – as before a ball is kicked there is precedent for regarding Newcastle simultaneously as both the best and worst team in the league. Despite the unpredictability there is a strong body of evidence from previous seasons to identify what success in the Championship looks like and what Newcastle will have to do to achieve that success.
Burnley can almost be regarded as patient zero when it comes to success in the championship; yes there may be anomalous situations, such as Leicester’s and Newcastle’s own 102 point seasons but the blueprint for promotion is claret and blue. In the two seasons Burnley were promoted to the Premier League (2013-14 and 2015-16) they finished with records so identical…:
Burnley 2013-14 – W26 D15 L5 GF72 GA37
Burnley 2015-16 – W26 D15 L5 GF72 GA35
Subsequent to our prior relegation, Burnley’s win percentage of 56.5% is the general average for teams seeking automatic promotion from the Championship. To put it another way – since the millennium no team that has achieved 26 wins in a season has failed to gain promotion. While a win of as little as 21 has previously seen teams promoted, what I’m trying to present here is an average idea of what success in the Championship should look like and the above two seasons from Burnley embody that almost to perfection.
Should Newcastle United pootle along to a record consisting of around 26 wins, 5 losses and 15 draws then promotion shall be our reward, however can this be considered likely?
Rafa’s English win percentage is a reported 54.5%, which is not far from 56.5% rate that would signal promotion and was likely pulled down by the ill-fated ten game spell trying to right the ship scuttled by Steve McClaren.
Does a world class manager, a strong squad and fanatical backing mean Newcastle United will achieve something like 26 wins and promotion?
There are many pundits out there prepared to say we will, but to me it’s more a case of – we don’t know we don’t know. Still, it’s going to be a fun season finding out.