Posting odds on relegation to Twitter is guaranteed to elicit responses like “where are Chelsea?” or “what no Chelsea”. However Chelsea are not, and have never been close to being, relegation candidates this season. This is because, despite Chelsea being low in the Premier League table, it would take an incredibly unlikely set of circumstances for them to go down.
This season, there are not one but two teams at the bottom of the Premier League who have to achieve something which hasn’t been done since 1990/1991 – namely recover from a seven point deficit from safety at the halfway stage of the season. Sheffield United did this 25 years ago but no one has done so since. This term not only Aston Villa (11 points off safety after 19 matches), but also Sunderland (seven), are trying to survive after being this far behind at the halfway point. Sunderland even managed to win their 20th and 21st matches of the season but are still four points from safety.
So, two relegation spots are already occupied by teams who are heavy favourites to go down, leaving only one for Chelsea to drop into. With 29 points, Chelsea are already eight points ahead of Newcastle United who occupy that position currently – a huge gap with 14 matches to play. Not only that but there are four other clubs – Norwich City, Swansea City, AFC Bournemouth and West Bromwich Albion – who are lower than Chelsea at present and thus more likely to take the final relegation spot if Newcastle United somehow improve results enough to escape the bottom three, and overtake Chelsea in the process.
Chelsea are, of course, still rated as one of the best teams in the Premier League by the Euro Club Index. If that overrates them, which it may, their chance of relegation would be higher than the near 0% it currently is according to that rating system. West Bromwich Albion though are not rated as a good team and have about 1000 points fewer than Chelsea on the Euro Club Index. They also have the same number of points (29) as Chelsea currently but even their chance of relegation is only 4%.
This doesn’t mean to say that it is impossible for a team with a small probability of achieving something actually doing it. Probabilities show us that anything can happen, however unlikely it appears to be. This was perfectly illustrated by Ajax in the 2011/2012 Eredivisie season, a story which deserves a much wider audience than it has outside the Netherlands. On 5 February 2012, Ajax lost 2-0 at home to FC Utrecht with Utrecht completing the double as they had won the first fixture 6-4(!!). There were 14 matches remaining in the season for most teams and this was the Eredivisie table at that stage.
Ajax had a 2% chance of winning the league after playing that 20th match, according to the Euro Club Index, despite still being ranked as one of the best three teams in the league at the time. Ajax’s chance was so small because a variety of things had to happen:
- The league title would need to be won with a relatively low points total as Ajax could only get a maximum of 76. This was likely but far from a certainty.
- Ajax would need to win pretty much all of their remaining matches to have a chance of winning the league if the points total did indeed prove to be low.
- ALL of the five clubs above Ajax, particularly the top two would have to not have good runs of results.
This was the final top six of the Eredivisie in 2011/2012:
- Ajax won all of their remaining 14 matches after the defeat by FC Utrecht.
- Feyenoord were the only club in the top five to have a reasonable run, taking 33 points from their last 14 matches but they had only been three points clear of Ajax on February 5.
- The top three managed 27, 26 and 21 points, the latter pair from 15 matches, over the same period. Heerenveen took 27 points from their last 14.
All of the top three on February 5 performed worse in their remaining matches than they had in the fixtures up to that point but Ajax still needed to go from 1.7 points per match from their first 20 to 2.57 points per match, an improvement of 51%, to get to 70 and win the title on goal difference. They did better than this, winning all 14 and therefore ending the season as champions by six points.
Quite simply, the last 14 or 15 matches of the 2011/2012 Eredivisie season were highly unusual. Not only did teams who had previously performed reasonably well stop doing that but a club which had been nothing special for more than half a season suddenly, and unexpectedly, pulled a 14 match winning streak out of the bag.
Going back to Chelsea, if they were to be relegated this season, at least five of the clubs below them would all have to go on much better runs of results than they have to date. Chelsea themselves would have to take no more than about seven points maximum from their remaining 14 matches, a much much worse run than they have experienced, even in this wretched season.
That is why Chelsea are not relegation candidates, however close they appear to be to the drop zone. It would need to be an almost miraculous climax to the season in the way 2011/2012 was for Ajax. Probability illustrates it very clearly but many fans just want to believe that the spectre of relegation looms large for one of England’s richest clubs. Believing something however, does not make it true.