17th in L1, so is there any chance of a top six finish for Swindon?

With Town languishing in 17th position after 20 games, Ron Smith wants to understand how early form indicates final league fates…

With 20 games of the season played, Swindon Town are 17th in League One with 22 points. Instead of concentrating on the more apparent threat of relegation, a run of three wins in four games under Martin Ling has stoked somewhat ambitious talk amongst some supporters towards whether Town can make up the current 11 points gap to 6th position, to mount a very unlikely push for the play-offs.

A total of 78 points to win from 26 games provides a realm of possibilities. At one end of the scale, Town could storm to the League One title with 100 points after winning every remaining game. Alternatively, Ling could maintain his current form of 2.25 points per game to deliver 81 points, enough to finish in the top six in each of the past ten seasons. Conversely, continuing to win a season average of 1.1 points per game over the remaining 26 games would equate to a tally of 51 points – itself just over the recent ten season average of 49 points needed to finish in 20th position and avoid relegation.

Clearly anything could happen. For any supporter, ultimately until there is no mathematical possibility of a league fate occurring, that fate will not be discounted, regardless of whether there’s a realistic prospect. In order to try and provide some perspective, I’ve looked to assess the outcome of League One relative to the standing of each team after round 20. The survey has evaluated the outcome of the past ten seasons…

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Click to enlarge

Starting with the possibilities for Swindon Town who occupy 17th position, over the last ten League One seasons:

  • The team in 17th position has won an average of 22.6 points after 20 games (min 21, max 24).
  • Those teams have then completed the 46 game season with an average of 54.1 points, averaging a 17th place finish.
  • On two occasions a team in 17th after 20 games has been relegated (Chesterfield and Gillingham with 47 and 48 points respectively).
  • No side has finished higher than 17th after securing exactly 22 points after 20 games.
  • The highest finisher of a 17th placed side was Leyton Orient in 2010/11, ending in 7th with 70 points – a single point outside of the play-offs.

So if form over this sample period is anything to go by, the 11 points gap to 6th is already beginning to look insurmountable. Town are more than likely to finish in mid-table, but there remains a strong chance of relegation.

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Click to enlarge

Looking at the league as a whole the analysis shows:

  • 26 of the 240 teams (10.8%) finished the season in the position they were occupying after 20 games.
  • The greatest improvement in position has come from those sides bottom of League One after 20 games, improving by an average of 5 places.
  • The greatest decline in performance has come from those sides in 7th position, dropping an average of 6.6 places by game 46.
  • Teams outside of the top six after 20 games have had a 20% chance of finishing in the promotion places, however no team below 13th place after 20 games has subsequently finished in the top six.
  • Relegation has been a final league fate for those in positions 13-24 after 20 games, and 7th position following Notts County’s relegation in 2014/15.
  • Half of all teams occupying 1st position after 20 games have maintained their strong start to win the championship.
  • Only once (Tranmere Rovers in 2012/13) has a side top of League One then finished outside of the top six. Also, nine of the team teams occupying 2nd has remained in the promotion mix at the end of the season.
  • The average finish of a team in 5th after 20 games is 5th.
  • 97 teams of the total sample of 240 finished the season in a lower position, 26 were a non-mover, while 117 did improve their outcome.

With a limited sample of data over ten years and a range of external factors (injuries, tactical familiarity, the January transfer window, etc) it is not easy to draw any serious conclusions.

There’s logic for those higher teams tending to regress, on average. While those towards the bottom of the division can only climb upwards.

In all, the level of stability between the position occupied after 20 games and final position is evident. While there have been notable exceptions, such as Notts County’s fall last season to Bristol City’s rise from bottom to 9th in 2005/06, teams do appear to migrate at an early stage towards their final league position.

As for Swindon, back in 2010/11 after play off defeat the previous season Town were 16th after 20 games, only then to slump to finishing bottom of the division. Unlike then, the managerial change has been made much sooner and has yielded a more positive approach and points in the bag. With another 26 games remaining Town have every chance of ending 2015/16 in a respectable position, which is a prospect I couldn’t have imagined writing only a month ago.

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