Our model continues to project safety for Newcastle, but a new metric suggests we should get used to uttering the "r word."
Three weeks ago, we were looking at a table that had Newcastle in 16th place, and they had two upcoming fixtures with teams in Champions League spots and one with a fellow relegation candidate. If, three weeks ago, you would have been happy with Newcastle retaining their spot in 16th, then you are indeed pleased today. In fact, the bottom six teams are all in the exact same order three weeks later.
ExPts stands for Expected Points. It is calculated using goal differential and represents the number of points that a team could have reasonably expected to achieve to this point with neutral luck. PrPts stands for Projected Points. It is a projection of the number of points that a team will achieve, calculated by adding Expected Points for games remaining to actual points already gained.
Accordingly, our model continues to project the same three teams to be relegated: Aston Villa, Wigan Athletic, and Queens Park Rangers. That will be of some comfort to Reading supporters, but I'm sure they'll be happier to be out of the relegation zone sooner rather than later. They'll get their chance soon enough, as they will clash with Wigan when the league gets going again in a week and a half. Meanwhile, Queens Park Rangers have the misfortune to host a Manchester United team that is eager to put the league title out of reach (if it isn't already). Aston Villa, winners of just two on the road, will travel to The Emirates to taken on Arsenal, who are chasing a Champs League spot. The other fixture of note is a chance for either Southampton or Newcastle to make this conversation irrelevant for their fans. NUFC are disappointed with their showing at White Hart Lane, but they acquitted themselves well over that tough three-match stretch. Southampton have every reason to be even more confident, having defeated one-time title contender Manchester City 3-1 last weekend.
As we expand our table to include teams that aren't really in the relegation scrap but could be dragged back in with a few bad weeks, we continue to note that Norwich City appears poised for a precipitous fall.
Like Aston Villa and QPR behind them, the Canaries are averaging less than a goal per game, and where 0-0 draws are bad results for the former two, those kinds of contests might just be enough to keep Norwich afloat. Still, we should not be surprised if they are caught by Southampton or Newcastle, especially if one of them manages to grab three points when the two teams meet on the 24th. Happily enough for the partisan readers of this blog, the Toon remain less a game behind Sunderland. If they can keep the Unwashed within shouting distance until April 13, it will be a raucous derby indeed.
Let's go ahead and add another table to the mix. Ed Thompson of financialfairplay.co.uk has taken a Cann Table, which is simply a visual representation of the current table that illustrates the gaps between teams, and added wages to the equation.
There are a number of problems with this table, but to be fair to Ed, he admits that it's not a perfect model. For one thing, it would be easy to look at the table and come to the conclusion that a given wage bill should net a certain amount of points. The Soccernomics guys found that wages are a better predictor of how a team will finish than transfer fees, as commonly believed. No doubt that's part of the impetus behind the creation of this table. To my knowledge, however, a statistically significant linear relationship between wages and points has not been found. As far as I can tell, the cheapest wage bill was matched up with the lowest current point total, then the same thing was applied to the top of the table, and then the wages were scaled accordingly. It's tempting to draw conclusions based on the slope of each line, but don't do it. This is not an xy-plane, even though it may look like it if you squint hard enough.
My second gripe is that this is a reflection of a season in progress. The final table will undoubtedly have quite a different flavor to it, but the wage bills will remain static through June. Perhaps this sort of analysis will be more appropriate at that time.
Finally, we must ask questions about the accuracy of the wage data. Ed was kind enough to divulge his sources, most of which were from year-old financial reports. Wages reported in the media are nebulous enough, and I think if you're going to endeavor on this sort of project, using those financial reports is probably the way to go. At the end of the day, though, the numbers used here probably aren't as accurate as we would hope for them to be.
With all of those caveats in full force, we can nevertheless draw some useful conclusions, as long we don't take them as gospel. Notice that according to the available data, Newcastle are around 9th in the league in wages - firmly mid-table, and as the scale shows, well behind the powerhouses at the top of the league. Why, then, should we be surprised when mid-table is about all they can manage in the standings? Last year's 5th place finish clearly stands out as an anomaly. The reality is that Newcastle are performing about as they should be expected to perform. We saw it in the Expected/Projected Points table, and we're seeing it here.
That Mike Ashley and Derek Llambias have turned into penny-pinchers (relatively speaking) is no big secret. Their insistence on buying low and selling high is admirable in a sport where buying high and trying not to ever sell is the norm. They've done it with their transfer fees, and they've managed to do it with their wages. Players that don't live up to their salary are jettisoned and replaced with guys who just want to play in the Premier League. My fear is that last year's overachievement was a Pyrrhic victory of sorts - that Cerberus thinks they've found the secret, when the fact is that the team rode one of the hottest scoring streaks in the history of the sport* to a ton of one goal victories, forcing them to play a loaded schedule with a heap of discount bin players. This almost mid-table, on the fringes of relegation discussion existence is the norm.
*only a slight exaggeration
If Newcastle are to enjoy a sustained period of success, the Fine Creative Businessman will eventually have to pay his top-level talent to stick around, else the club continue to spin its wheels. Until then, we will continue to monitor the relegation six-pointers and hoping for the seemingly inevitable Villa collapse.