What is the significance of the first six games of a football season?

The 2019/20 Premier League campaign is four games old, but conclusions are already being drawn. It is still early days, of course, but it is difficult to envisage anyone other than Liverpool or Manchester City winning the title. Manchester United and Chelsea look off the pace in the race for the top four, while Norwich City, Newcastle United, Aston Villa and Watford could be set for a season of struggle.

However, whenever a pundit makes such predictions at this stage of the season, they emphasise that there is still a long way to go. That is true, of course, but each game – whether it takes place in week one or week 38 – is worth the same amount of points, even though matches towards the end of the campaign are much more likely to be labelled “must-win” or “vital”. So, does it matter when clubs win their points? And just how important are the first six games of the season?

Six fixtures is patently a small sample size, particularly so in a sport like football where a result does not always accurately reflect the strength of a team’s performance. It is also worth bearing in mind that a side’s six opponents will often not be representative of the league as a whole – facing Manchester United, Manchester City, Chelsea, Arsenal, Liverpool and Tottenham in your first six contests is much harder than locking horns with Norwich, Aston Villa, Newcastle, Sheffield United, Bournemouth and Brighton and Hove Albion.

However, six games is not an entirely useless sample, particularly as each team will (in normal circumstances) have played three matches at home and three matches away. Interestingly, the winner of the Premier League has been outside the top four after six games just three times since the 1995/96 campaign.

There are also reasons why some teams start quickly and others more slowly. Last term, Tottenham were disadvantaged early on because many of their players returned late to pre-season due to their involvement in the latter stages of the 2018 World Cup in Russia. This time around, Spurs have had to contend with more transfer speculation than most, with Christian Eriksen’s unresolved until after their fourth encounter of 2019/20.

Moreover, a team which has signed several new players in the transfer market is less likely to hit the ground running than one which has kept a settled side from the season before. In time, though, the first side could pick up strength as their squad members begin to gel with one another.

Any serious sports bettor will make full use of the data available to them, so it is time for us to consult some of the statistics from recent years. There is no clear pattern as to how league positions change, but it is still intriguing to look at the extent to which things change between week six and week 38.

In 2018/19, three teams (Chelsea, Leicester City and Huddersfield Town) were in the exact same spot in the table after six games as they were at the end of the campaign. Others moved up or down one position (Liverpool, Manchester City, Tottenham, Arsenal, Manchester United, Crystal Palace, Burnley and Cardiff City), while some changed rather significantly (Bournemouth went from eighth to 14th, while West Ham United climbed from 17th to 10th).

In some regards it was a similar story in 2017/18, when three teams – Manchester City, Manchester United and Newcastle - again kept the same positions. However, fewer (Tottenham, Liverpool and Arsenal) moved up or down by one, and several more climbed or fell by three or more positions.

In 2016/17, six clubs (Liverpool, Tottenham, Manchester United, West Bromwich Albion, Leicester and Sunderland) were in the same position after week six and week 38. Chelsea went from eighth to first, while Crystal Palace slumped from seventh to 14th.

Regression to the mean is a factor in all sports, and the data analysed above provides some clear examples of the phenomenon in action. Three of the most obvious instances in recent years were Aston Villa’s decline from sixth to 17th in 2014/15, Crystal Palace’s rise from 20th to 11th in 2017/18, and Southampton’s climb from 16th to sixth in 2015/16.

On other occasions, a club’s position after six games can be instructive: in 22 of the 24 38-match Premier League campaigns, at least one team in the relegation zone after half a dozen encounters has ended up being demoted to the second tier. Two of the three sides in the bottom three after six games have gone down 11 times in the last 24 seasons, and in 2006/07 all three fell through the trapdoor.

So, how can we make use of all this in the realm of sports betting? Remember, outright markets are often updated throughout the Premier League season, and if a team had a particularly strong or poor start, their odds for things like a top-four or bottom-three finish will be adjusted accordingly. Markets can sometimes overreact to how a team has performed in the first six matches, and this is something that can often be taken advantage of.

There is also the opportunity to profit from betting on individual matches. Looking beyond the results and towards Expected Goals models gives a far better indication of a team’s genuine strength, particularly after six games. Has a side over or underperformed their xG early on? Armed with this knowledge, you can bet for or against them and hopefully take advantage of some favourable odds.

05.09.2019 < Back