Premier League – how many points to stay up?

Having emerged the other side of the hectic winter fixtures list, the premier league table now gives a good indication of who’s likely to finish where. Whilst much of the discussion in the press focuses on races for the title and European spots, the battle at the bottom of the league rumbles on.

In terms of avoiding relegation, it’s often said that 40 is the ‘magic’ number of points. Since the Premier League reduced in size to 20 teams in 1995/6, 40 points has only been insufficient to keep a team in the league in 3 out of 19 seasons: Sunderland and Bolton were relegated with 40 points in 1996/97 and 1997/98 respectively whilst West Ham famously succumbed to the drop with 42 points to their name in 2002/3.

Given changes in the number of teams in the Premier League, simply looking at points attained is inappropriate, if you want a picture of how ‘survival’ has evolved since the Premier League began back in 1992. So, for the clubs in the bottom places, we calculate the % of the total points available they won. This is shown in the chart below, for every Premier League season.


A few things jump out:

(1) over time, we find a small downward trend in the points won by the club which finished above the bottom 3. In other words, in general, clubs need marginally less points to stay up than before. Based on the trend line, a club now needs around 2 points less to stay up compared to 10 years ago.

(2) but there is considerable variation in points won by relegated clubs from season to season; particularly for the bottom club.

(3) apart from a period in the late 1990s, it has usually been the case that the 3rd bottom club and the first safe club are very close in terms of points won i.e. at least one relegation place is decided on the last day of the season.

So what might explain the downward trend in the points required to stay in the league? Perhaps, there’s has been a decline in the performance of teams in the bottom half of the premier league, relative to those in the rest of the league. Such an explanation fits with the ‘stylised fact’ that the premier league has become less competitive over time and/or the premier league has split into performance ‘tiers’. See Football Economics’ previous work on league competitiveness here

But if you want  bite-size pieces of information to go away with, then since the Premier League adjusted to 20 clubs:

  • the 40 point mark isn’t a bad guide – achieve that and based on history you have an 85% chance of staying in the league.
  • drawing every game and reaching 38 points gives you a 68% chance of survival.

We’ve a number of ideas on how to extend the analysis, perhaps by looking over a longer-time horizon, comparing with Europe’s top leagues or making a comparison between the old Division 1 and the Premier League – but that’s for another post. If you have any queries or questions, or would like to sponsor some of these further analyses, please do get in contact with us.

Grant Davies – Football Economics