Can West Ham, Southampton survive the festive period among Prem elite?
The holiday season in the Premier League has often been where underdog dreams go to die. Fixtures pile up and the perception is that smaller clubs just cannot compete. This season, those smaller clubs still have a fighting chance. With the 2014-15 campaign approaching the halfway mark, West Ham United still cling to fourth place with Southampton close behind in fifth. But the festive period is coming, and with it 30 league matches in just seven days.
You have to go back nearly a decade to find a comparable situation. On Boxing Day morning in 2005, Bolton Wanderers were in fifth place and Wigan Athletic in sixth, one and three points off fourth place respectively while Arsenal were mired in eighth. Tottenham Hotspur and Liverpool held on to the last Champions League positions by a slim margin. It seemed like the little guys had a shot, if they could just survive the next week.
Yet the holiday fixtures that year were particularly brutal, as most teams had to play four matches in just eight days. Tottenham, Arsenal and Liverpool cruised. Bolton failed to win a single match; Wigan won two and drew two. By Jan. 4, Arsenal had overtaken Bolton and Wigan for fifth place as the underdogs fell a full six points off the Champions League pace en route to a pair of mid-table finishes.
Will the holidays be the dream-killer again this year? The tight schedule around Boxing Day, at least in theory, favors those clubs that can rotate their squads without risking a game on a truly inadequate lineup. Southampton and West Ham are not without depth, but certainly they do not boast the riches of the biggest clubs. So will lack of depth sink them? It's happened before but historically speaking, how much does depth determine?
Because there is no simple measure for squad depth, I am using wage bills as a proxy. The wealthiest teams with the largest total wage bills tend not only to have the best first-choice XIs, but they also carry quality backups. Money can, and does, buy security.
Using the data set compiled by Cruyffian, I can compare every club's performance over the holiday to its wage bill since 2000-2001. The results show that the biggest teams do see outsized advantages in the holiday period, just as hypothesized. Yet the numbers are not entirely bleak for Southampton and West Ham, either.
Clubs with wage bills among the top four in the league tend to do very well no matter the circumstance, but particularly at the New Year. They average about 2.0 points per match over most of the season; during the holidays, that rate jumps 10 percent to 2.2 points per match. This means that every festive period, one of the four richest clubs wins a match they otherwise would have drawn or lost. Given that the title and fourth place races are often decided by a point or two, those extra points at the holiday can make all the difference.
At the same time, not every high-payroll club sees the benefits of depth every year. If a high-payroll club like Manchester United or Arsenal goes on a run through the winter fixtures, it should not be surprising, but such a run is in no way guaranteed.
For West Ham and Southampton, those two middle bars offer some degree of hope. It is the poorest teams in the Premier League that tend to struggle particularly around Boxing Day and New Year's. The five lowest-wage sides in the league average about 1.05 points per match on the weekly schedule of the season, but that drops to 0.9 points per match during the holiday glut. That is a 15 percent decline to match the 10 percent improvement by the richest clubs. That adds up to an extra point dropped by two or three of the lowest payroll clubs each year.
There is, however, no holiday effect on the points per match taken by the middle class teams. They perform equally well over the holidays as during the rest of the season.
These results suggest that the depth of the ultra-wealthy is not the only depth that counts. The clubs with the lowest wage bills lose even more when they have to field a second-string lineup than the teams in the middle do. Both the Saints and the Hammers fall in the middle. These numbers suggest that this year's underdogs are disadvantaged about 10 percent compared to their moneyed competition. Depth makes a difference, then, but it cannot determine results. These underdogs still have their chance.
To quantify these chances, I have built a projection engine based on underlying statistics. Both Southampton and West Ham project as underdogs in the top four race, but they are far from out of it. If either club can see out the holidays in winning fashion, they would be primed to remain in the hunt to the end of the year.
Unfortunately, both clubs face difficult fixtures against precisely the high-payroll sides you want to avoid over the holiday. West Ham host Arsenal and travel to Chelsea, while both the Gunners and the Blues will be making the trek to the South Coast to face the Saints. Each side has just one clearly winnable match -- Southampton face Crystal Palace away and West Ham host West Bromwich, lower-payroll sides that may be disadvantaged in the holiday matches. Points from these matches are critical.
The following chart shows each team's projected odds of finishing in the top four would change based on how many points they take over the holiday.
Just three points from the three games is probably not good enough. To enter the second half with a chance over one-in-four to reach the Champions League, both clubs need an upset win over one of Arsenal or Chelsea, games that are theoretically even more difficult to win over the holidays. But keeping underdog dreams alive is never easy. This year, it is going to take a season-defining victory over one of the Premier League's biggest and richest sides.
Michael Caley is a writer bringing a statistical approach to football analysis. Follow him on Twitter: @MC_of_A.