Points per game record versus top half and bottom half shows why Chelsea lost the title, and why Sunderland survived

May 9, 2014

If there’s one result that sums up the crazy, unpredictable end to this Premier League season, it’s Chelsea’s 2-1 defeat at home to Sunderland.

That was Jose Mourinho’s first home league defeat as Chelsea manager, after 78 games, and proved crucial at both top and bottom. Chelsea’s chances of winning the league title took a huge blow, while Sunderland continued their great escape.

However, to a certain extent that result was typical of their campaigns, because Chelsea and Sunderland are the two sides in the division that have collected more points against top half sides, than against bottom half sides.

Indeed, while that 2-1 Sunderland victory was a huge surprise, it’s epitomised both clubs’ seasons. Chelsea have been excellent against the top four, beating Liverpool twice, Manchester City twice and winning 6-0 and drawing 0-0 against Arsenal. But they’ve struggled to break down weaker sides, as recent defeats against Aston Villa and Crystal Palace show – last week’s goalless draw against Norwich is another example.

Sunderland, meanwhile, also managed to take a point against Manchester City in their recent run, and won at Old Trafford (even if that’s less difficult than in previous seasons). They also got past Chelsea and Manchester United in the League Cup, caused Manchester City problems in the final, as well as collecting wins against Manchester City and Everton in the league. Their record against the three relegated clubs, however, is just two wins from six matches.

Here’s a graph showing each of the 20 sides’ points-per-game record against the top and bottom halves this season. Obviously, there’s still one game remaining, but it makes for interesting reading. The red dotted line depicts the position a side would be if they collected exactly the same PPG against top and bottom half sides – Sunderland and Chelsea are the only sides below it.

Perhaps the most striking thing is the similarity between so many clubs – the majority of the division collects between 1 and 2 points against bottom-half clubs, and between 0.5 and 1 points against top-half clubs. In this respect, Sunderland are a world of their own amongst the non-top 7 clubs.

It also demonstrates which sides are ‘flat-track bullies’ – the teams towards the upper-left of the diagram. Manchester United, for example, have been better at battering bottom-half sides than Liverpool, somewhat surprisingly. However, their record against other top-half sides is worse than Stoke or West Brom (who, incidentally, have both beaten United this season, which has helped their record). Arsenal are also notable in this respect, while Crystal Palace also have a huge disparity.

The Premier League is increasingly split into two sections – some teams challenging for Europe, the rest fighting relegation, and no real ‘midtable’ to speak of. Also, as sides become increasingly organised and the emphasis upon tactics becomes much greater, playing against one of the Premier League’s better sides is often a completely different challenge from playing against a relegation battler, as Chelsea’s season suggests. A top half v bottom half graph can reveal a great deal about the nature of teams’ play.

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