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Stats Corner: Why The First Five Games Are Crucial

A look into the numbers behind team’s starts to the season - and what impact they have.

Reading v Derby County - Sky Bet Championship - Madejski Stadium Photo by Simon Galloway/EMPICS/PA Images via Getty Images

While the start of every football season brings excitement and anticipation for pretty much all football fans across the country, it’s also a time of uncertainty and doubt. How much can you and should you read into your team’s first results of the season?

Does it matter if you don’t win your opening game? What if you’re in the lower third of the division come the end of August? Does anything matter at all?! Well, for the first Stats Corner of the season, I’ll be taking a look at just how crucial the first five game are to a team’s season.

On the face of things, league position after the first five matches seems to matter very little. Looking at the Championship as a whole, only three teams finished in exactly the same position they occupied after five games: Derby in sixth, Swansea in 10th and Ipswich in 24th, which shouldn’t be surprising at all.

After all, there are 41 more games to dictate the overall fate of each team, and a whole lot of time to rectify a dodgy start. Take a look at Norwich City for example - they had only won one game by the end of August and sat in a pretty lowly 18th position. It was only a charge up the table in mid-Autumn that showed signs they were really clicking. In contrast, Bolton Wanderers were third after five games, having won three of their opening four games - including a 1-0 victory at the Madejski Stadium. However, they then won only four more games in the 42 that followed and I don’t need to tell you the fate that they’re in now.

Reading v Bolton Wanderers - Sky Bet Championship - Madejski Stadium Photo by Paul Harding/EMPICS/PA Images via Getty Images

So, there you go, a short article, easily solved. August has no real bearing on the league outcome, we needn’t matter about these games coming up, it just allows the players to build, settle, learn and grow... etc etc etc…

Well, no actually. Dig a little deeper and you see that the opening five matches do have more of an impact on final league standings than you might think - taking last season as a standalone example that is.

In total, of the 24 Championship teams, almost half (11) finished within three or fewer places of their position after five matches. Cast the net a bit wider again and you find that 16 teams finished within five or fewer places than where they were on August 25. Go even further still and it’s 19 teams that finished within six places or fewer.

This final peek under the microscope finds that, last season, 79% of all Championship teams finished within a quarter of the league table lower or higher than where they stood on August 25 after just five matches.

Reading are a notable example of this. We may have staved off relegation and climbed up from second bottom on August 25th, but only managed to climb to 20th, having been no higher than the bottom third all season. And if you look at the places that matter - the top six and bottom third - you find that these again are set in stone pretty early.

Of the bottom third, four of the eight teams after five games failed to get out of it: Queens Park Rangers, Birmingham City, Reading and Ipswich Town. Then, when it comes to the top six, half of the teams after their first five games stayed in the playoff positions at the end of the season, while five of those who ended up in the playoff/auto spots were in the top half after five games and within at least two points. It was only Norwich who made a sudden rise upwards.

Looking at things this way, just by cranking up the ‘Complexo-meter’ a few degrees, it’s actually fairly reasonable and logical to panic about your team’s start to the season. Luckily, Reading have a few more games and several new signings (at time of writing) to correct what happened on the opening day.

Obviously we may not end up having much to worry about - after all the Championship is the most unpredictable league in the world where anything can happen. However, as this evidence suggests, this mayhem isn’t as widespread as you may have been led to believe, and only a handful of teams will benefit as a result.