We are just past the halfway point of the football season and we have a blank weekend, so I felt able to do a bit of historical research.
We have had an up and down time of it so far, currently in eighth position – good, but nevertheless disappointing given the winning run we had back in November. Surely we cannot expect to be anywhere near the Champions’ League positions?
Well, it might not be fanciful to be optimistic after all.
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Guess how we were doing in our brilliant season a couple of years ago at this time of year? I expected to look it up and see that we were relatively highly placed after our superb start and at a moment just before our unrelievedly terrible Spring.
The truth is that, at this stage, on 22 January 2012, we were in sixth position on … precisely the same number of points we have today. We were five points behind Chelsea, who had 41. And Chelsea were in fourth position.
Today, of course, we are fully seven points behind Liverpool, who are in fourth position (and, incidentally, doing very nicely in the FA Cup, all at the same time).
But apart from that, we are back in eighth position today, as I say.
What is the significance of history in terms of league position?
After all, we talk about forty points being enough to ensure survival as if it were holy writ. And usually we discover at the end of the season that forty points is indeed enough.
The story at the top is rather different. Chelsea’s total of 91 points in 2006 looks hard to beat these days. Manchester United have won the league with only 80. But there is no trend. The top clubs might be getting richer, and they are getting stronger (I suspect Mata will not be the end of Manchester United’s strengthening this year), but they are not necessarily getting better than each other. Manchester United, currently, and probably temporarily, are clearly weaker.
The real question is whether the top four clubs this year are better than the top four clubs of two years ago. Back then, at this stage, the top four had a total of 192 points. The top four today have a total of 193. Of course this is hardly a scientific comparison. A lot would depend on the weakness of the teams at the bottom, and who the top teams had played.
Two years ago I can remember reading about how fans were suffering from altitude sickness, and how we were lucky, and how the league had spent half the season working us out. There was probably something in all of that, but I do remember being sure it couldn’t last, especially as we were on the fade.
What is surprising is, relatively speaking, it did. Looking back at the table in January 2012, we were still in touch with the leaders, despite clearly being impostors, and despite being on a poor run, with Cisse’s hot streak still to kick in.
There are more teams above us today but they are surely no better than the teams ahead of us back then. The points difference is neither here nor there.
My powers of prediction are famously negligible. I am therefore making no predictions.
But a statistician who knew nothing about football could clearly be excused for concluding that we are at least as well placed to finish fifth this season as we were two years ago.
If fifth, why not fourth? We are not on the fade this time and other teams are.
By the way, I did look down at the other end of the table. No lessons can be drawn about teams with 18 points at this time of year. Sunderland could go down, quite easily, but equally easily they could stay up.
Sadly they have had the wit to appoint a thoroughly good manager and could stay up and win a cup.
I wouldn’t swap with them. After all, there is no reason why, with a bit of a spurt, we can’t qualify for the Champions’ League.