Analysis: One Step Beyond – What does “good” look like in a new league?

With Blackpool’s promotion to the Championship, Neil Critchley and the Seasiders have the unenviable task of trying to keep the club in the second tier among fierce competition. There are no longer four clear laggards in the Championship (just one in Derby County!). Blackpool could play well, transition better than your average promoted side and still face the drop if they suffer a poor run of luck.

So how do we analyse team performance and make sure we’re still making measured progress? (Pardon the use of our old Chairman’s favourite phrase).

Are we playing the right way to minimise our risk of relegation?

To help answer these questions, we’ve run the numbers for the teams promoted into the Championship in each of the past five seasons. We found:

  1. Most promoted sides avoid relegation in their first year in the Championship – but only a third of teams survive two years in the second tier.
  2. Based on the average drop-off that promoted sides face, your average League One team that performed like Blackpool should score 50 goals, concede 60 goals and finish 19th. This should be our baseline against which to analyse any over/underperformance.
  3. Unsurprisingly, teams that are promoted find the second season more difficult at both ends of the pitch. They concede far more goals, score fewer and their passing and possession falls by c.10%.
  4. Teams that survive promotion press the opposition more than their relegated peers. Promoted teams are able to press to the level required in the Championship, and those that do so generally achieve better results.
  5. “Building from the back” / possession play is important. Promoted sides that retain their Championship spot play fewer long balls, have a shorter average pass length and cross much less than their relegated peers. “Pragmatic” play is not pragmatic.

Analysing Promotion and the Following Season(s)

League position is the number that matters, and the results are a mixed bag.

The good news is that the average side promoted to the Championship finishes 18th and escapes relegation by a few league positions – and two-thirds of clubs secure a second year in the second tier.1

Unfortunately, the jubilation of survival rarely lasts long, with most clubs sliding back down into League One by the end of their second Championship season. Only a third of newly-promoted teams beat the drop for two conescutive years.

Blackpool fans can – and should – be happy with survival in the 2021/22 season. With the right signings and coaching, there is no reason to assume that we can’t replicate the performance of other promoted sides and stay in the EFL’s second tier.

The more challenging task is to survive a second time, something most sides have failed to do since 2016. A third Championship season would represent a significant achievement by Blackpool’s coaching and recruitment teams.

Targets for 2021

With the rise of analytics in football, we can now compare performance data from promotion seasons with the corresponding data from the following season in the higher division. As a result, we can analyze specific areas of a team’s performance and understand how promotion affects the average team.

The data only goes back five seasons so the sample size isn’t huge. Nevertheless, we can measure a significant impact on the number of goals a team is expected to scores and concede, with more minor impacts on shooting and passing per 90.

Based on these “drop-off” rates and our performance from last year – we look on course to hit the average of 50 goals scored and 60 conceded.

There are some encouraging signs here. The data suggests that we should’ve scored 15 more goals in League One last year based on the overall quality of our chances (“xG”). If our bad luck in finishing ends, we should be on track to score 50 goals this season (about average for the Championship last year). Meanwhile, our defensive record should translate to about 60 goals conceded – usually just above the Championship’s relegation zone.

How should Blackpool play to minimise our risk of relegation?

When a team loses 10% of their number of passes and possession, this can be a real shock to their expectations – particularly if their playing style is very possession-oriented. While the data suggests that this is an effective style for staying up, I wonder how the more possessive Hull City and Peterborough will cope compared to Blackpool.

By analysing the data for promoted sides since 2016, we found two stylistic differences between teams who retain their spot in the Championship and those who are relegated. Successful teams keep the ball on the ground to progress into the final third, and use pressing to keep it there.

Contrary to (some) narratives, chucking long-balls over the top and hitting teams on the break is not a winning strategy for newly-promoted sides. Teams that survive the Championship do so by playing fewer long passes than their peers, keeping the average pass shorter and slowly building from the back more often rather than resorting to route one football. Similarly, they are less likely to chuck it into the mixer – averaging four fewer crosses per game.

This is why Neil Critchley’s emphasis on playing it out from the back – even against Manchester City – is so encouraging. As Sean McGinlay points out below, that pre-season match proved we had the confidence to do it against some of the world’s best pressing. This commitment to building play will reduce our chances of being relegated.

Pressing is the other main difference between sides that survive the Championship and sides that don’t. While pressing is now an established part of elite European football, it has to be done right. If a team fails to press correctly, with one player leaving a passing route open, the opposition can regularly cut through you, your high defensive line and create high-quality chances. If you don’t have an effective pressing system (or the right players for it), you may be better to drop off, enter a low-block, and limit your opponent to many low-quality chances.

Despite the complexity – it seems that, for newly promoted Championship teams, pressing is still the better strategy than an Allardyce/Dyche/Mourinho low-block. Those teams who stayed up did so by allowing (on average) one fewer opposition pass per defensive action (PPDA).

Blackpool are not a renowned pressing side. We were firmly in the middle of the League One table last year for PPDA (as were Peterborough and Hull). This may be an area where more work is needed on the training pitch to maximise our chances of avoiding relegation.

Conclusion

The rise into the Championship is a new test for this Blackpool squad. Rather than gradual progression, the goal is now cementing their position in the second tier.

The key findings are:

  1. The first season is only the beginning. While most clubs survive their first year in the Championship, very few survive the second year.
  2. Based on the average drop-off that promoted sides face, your average League One team that performed like Blackpool should aim to score at least 50 goals, concede 60 goals at most and finish at least 19th overall.
  3. Unsurprisingly, teams that are promoted concede more goals, score fewer and have far less of the ball. Possession-based teams are most affected by having less of the ball.
  4. Blackpool may need to practice their pressing. Promoted teams can press to the level required in the Championship, and those that do so generally achieve better results. This is something we have seen in pre-season.
  5. Critchley’s emphasis on building from the back needs to continue. Promoted sides that retain their Championship spot play fewer long balls and have a shorter average pass length than their peers who suffer relegation.

If you’re interested in exploring these issues further, I recommend Andy Watson’s piece last year comparing the difference in difficulty between each “step-up” the league table.

Enjoying our content? Make sure you check out UTMP’s latest podcasts too!

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1This average falls to 20 – the tightest of margins! – if you exclude the exceptional 2017-2018 season that saw both Millwall (8th) and Sheffield United (10th) finish in the top-half.

Published by Conor Hamilton

Northerner working in finance. Blackpool FC fan. I write about football with healthy doses of tactics, statistics and data visualizations.

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