30 September ~ This pre-season's Premier League predictions had one part that most were convinced of. Blackpool had no way of avoiding relegation. Yet after impressive opening results they seem to have as good a chance of staying up as any of the less-fancied teams. It's common for one of the newly promoted clubs to start off with such good form that if maintained over the season would result in a Europa League spot. Neutrals then patiently wait for that side's form to collapse, and almost inevitably they aren't disappointed.
The effect on small squads of injury and suspension explains the frequency of this kind of slump, along with the wasting away of early-season adrenaline and enthusiasm. Can Blackpool buck the trend, build on their start and stay comfortably away from the relegation zone all season?
Orthodox thought is that winning your home games ensures survival, and that is true in the sense that 14 wins at home gives you 42 points. Clubs with outstanding home form like that tend not to be involved in a relegation battle at all, however. The opposite seems to be true for those genuinely fighting for their lives. These teams, finishing within the group without an appreciable points gap to the bottom three, generally have similar home records with the odd exception here and there. It is away form which ends up being fatal for those consigned to the drop. It is vital, if you're not good enough to win eight or nine at home, to do well against your competitors and pick up points away from home.
Burnley's good form early last season consisted largely of home wins against non-strugglers. Over the season they did poorly against their direct competitors, defeating only Hull and West Ham, and managing only one away win. Then only three wins and a draw after New Year meant they went straight back down. Hull's first season after promotion followed a similar arc, though if anything an even more extreme one. Six wins and only one defeat in their first nine games was Champions League qualification form. The end to their season of 15 defeats from the last 22 games with only a single win after early December meant they were still battling the drop for a large part of it, surviving by a single point. Importantly, those six early wins contained four away from home, two of which were against teams who eventually went down.
So, apart from the first few months, Hull's form was catastrophic, but it didn't matter because although their home record was worse than the teams below them, they ended up with a much better away record, based purely on that start. In addition, of the three relegated sides plus themselves, they were the only one to at least take equal points from head-to-heads with the other three.
Here is where Blackpool find hope. Their early successes have included away wins against teams tipped to be fellow strugglers, Newcastle and Wigan. Already they have a good away record in the making, and at least level pegging in head-to-heads against two competitors. Assuming they eke out the home wins common among strugglers, they are well on the way to getting enough away points to ensure survival. The style and tactical nous displayed in those wins suggests that luck played little part in them, though a worry must be that their away form in their promotion season was nothing special, especially if they are to rely on it.
Statistics and trends of course are only useful pointers while teams continue to follow them. Blackpool could follow the path trod by another recent promoted team, Birmingham, and survive so comfortably that they are never in any danger at all, or they could fail to win another game and be doomed by Christmas. Even so, hints from previous seasons tell us that they may just have to face up to a widely unexpected challenge – the difficult second season. Mark Brophy