Play-offs: Lies and Statistics

“The table doesn’t lie in the end,” Ole Gunnar Solksjaer said after Manchester United failed to beat Huddersfield and thereby missed out on European Champions League qualification.

But some tables tell half-truths. The United manager has inadvertently highlighted another case in which it’s one law for the Premier League and a quite different law for the rest.

The table may not lie about the elite but everywhere else it is not completely reliable. In the Championship and League 1, the table can identify the best two teams and in League 2 the best three. But to find the next best, four teams have to prove themselves all over again.

1. The second, third and fourth tiers are under their current names
2. Originally, the first play-off position was occupied by a team in danger of relegation from the league above

The play-offs, the argument goes, keep the season alive longer for more clubs. That’s undoubtedly true but so what? Surely the whole point of the way football is structured is to allow teams to find their level. If a fairer way exists to rank 20 or 24 teams other than by having each one play all the others, home and away, why in 131 years has it not been implemented?

After a full programme of fixtures, Leeds United (third in the Championship) will have to beat teams they have already surpassed by up to nine points to gain promotion. The possibility of injustice is even greater in League 1 where Charlton Athletic, third behind Luton and Barnsley, are a full 15 points in front of Doncaster Rovers but have to overcome them again to remain in with a chance of promotion.

Since the play-offs were introduced in 1986-87, the most deserving club – according to the league table – has been promoted less than 40% of the time (36.5%). The least deserving, scraping into the last of the play-off places, has been the next most successful with 24% of the promotions.

By division, League 2 has produced the fairest reflection of the final table. The team in the first play-off position has survived the play-offs in almost 44% of cases. In League 1 it has been the next team down, 34.5% of the time. The Championship has come closest to mirroring the league table in its play-off success rate – 37.5%, 18.8%, 25% and 18.8% respectively for the teams gaining promotion from various finishes in the table.

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