The ultimate statistical guide to the Premier League opening weekend

England's top clubs are increasingly using statistics to evaluate performance - but how much can we read into a statistical history of the Premier League's opening weekend?

Mark Twain was presumably not thinking of football when he popularised the saying, ‘There are lies, damned lies and statistics’ in “Chapters from My Autobiography”, published in the North American Review in 1906, the year that Liverpool pipped Preston North End to the First Division title.

Numbers, of course, are becoming increasingly important in modern football. Premier League clubs and those further down the professional pyramid have increasingly begun to rely on Prozone to measure the vital – and not so vital – statistics of their players.

Earlier this week, it was even revealed that the company behind Prozone is now using Football Manager’s enormous database of players to help clubs with their transfer window recruitment. With big business comes the need to reduce risk – and numbers provide a modicum of certainty amongst the maelstrom of unpredictability that is sport.

But could a Premier League manager go as far as to base his team for the opening game of the season on first-day statistics?

Frank Lampard will captain England against Ecuador Frank Lampard has hit 8 goals in Premier League opening fixtures

That is the contention of BWIN, who have produced a comprehensive statistical guide to the opening day of the Premier League season.

Many make interesting reading but are unlikely to trouble the thought processes of the Premier League’s top bosses. Frank Lampard holds the idiosyncratic honour of being the Premier League’s most prolific scorer on opening day, with six strikes for Chelsea and two for West Ham. But does his record of hitting the back of the net in August outweigh the value of Manuel Pellegrini’s established Yaya Toure-Fernandinho central axis? It’s more likely if Pellegrini knows and places value by his stats that he might choose to bring Lampard on in the closing stages of Manchester City’s first fixture against Newcastle, if he requires a goal.

You would think that with 114 points available over the 38-game Premier League season, the first three gained or lost in the haze of mid-August would bear little significance by the pointy end of the title race.

Yet through the history of the Premier League, only Manchester United have lost on the opening day and gone on to win the title – three times. A large part of that statistic can be explained away by logic – teams who garner enough points to win the Premier League can afford to lose at most four or five games, so a defeat in the opening game leaves a title challenger with very little margin for error across the remaining nine months of the season.

Then again, one of the key facets to any and all of Sir Alex Ferguson’s United sides was their near-mythical ability to turn losing situations around. Perhaps only United amongst all the title-winners possessed the mental fortitude to recover from an opening-day loss.

Sir Alex Ferguson's Manchester United were famed for their last-minute comebacks Sir Alex Ferguson's Manchester United were famed for their last-minute comebacks

Similar logic can be applied to the fact that relegated sides have only won ten times in 67 opening-day fixtures. Relegation candidates invariably struggle to garner above 25 points over the course of the season, meaning they lose far more than they win. A loss on the opening day will not condemn an expected struggler, but it will hint at a difficult season in prospect.

On the other hand, it’s somewhat surprising that between 2002 and 2008, no relegated team won on the opening weekend. In recent years, the trend has been for clubs destined for relegation in May to explode out of the blocks early, blessed with the element of surprise. Think of Burnley in 2009/10, whose fine form in August and September turned into a disastrous run after Christmas.

 

Statistics when applied to professional football can enlighten, confuse and be explained away as mere coincidence – often at the same time. How else to deal with the revelation that the Premier League’s highest-scoring season (2011/12) had the lowest-scoring opening weekend of all time other than to suggest that one weekend in 38 does not a season make?

Sometimes the sample size is large enough to make definitive conclusions. Of their 22 opening-day games Chelsea have lost just three, averaging 2.05 goals per game and conceding just 0.77. That time period encompasses both their pre- and post-Abramovich eras – wide-ranging enough for us to conclude that Chelsea are traditionally fast starters.

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To read too much into numbers, however, is to overlook the simple fact that the first games of each Premier League season throw up wackiness that is ironed out over the remaining 37 games.

Then again, perhaps a manager like Manuel Pellegrini will be paying more attention than usual to his spreadsheets during the four remaining days until the season’s start. It was Pellegrini’s numerical error during his side’s 3-2 defeat of Bayern at the Allianz Arena last December that convinced his side to settle for three – and cast them into the runner-up spot in Group D…

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