We produced an analytical article and shareable infographic to accompany BT Sport’s previews of their live Premier League coverage. The first match to be covered was Man Utd v Crystal Palace, so we used our historical database to analyse how newly-promoted teams tended to perform against the reigning champions and identified how Palace could have caused an upset.
Unfortunately for Ian Holloway’s side the overall picture is bleak. Newly-promoted teams have only managed 13 victories against the champions in 124 attempts since 1992/93.
This weekend’s match being at Old Trafford makes Palace’s job appear even tougher as only three of those 13 have been away victories, the last of which was over a decade ago when Sam Allardyce’s Bolton came from behind to beat Manchester United 2-1 in October 2001.
You’ll notice from the roll of honour in our graphic that beating the champions in your first season is getting increasingly difficult – eight of the 13 wins came in the Premier League’s first five seasons.
Focusing on the positives, can we find any clues in the data which will help Palace to maximise their chances of success? We have collected data on every shot taken in the Premier League since the 2000/01 season, which we’ve analysed and distilled into three rules for Palace to follow on Saturday.
Don’t try to play them at their own game
The reigning champions tend to dominate these encounters, but what is surprising is that the relative number of shots each team has is virtually identical regardless of the outcome. Overall, in the 78 matches played since 2000/01, the newly-promoted side has averaged nine shots on goal and the champions 16.4, but if you just look at the matches in which the newly-promoted side got at least a point, these numbers are exactly the same.
The recipe for success therefore seems not to be about carving out more goalscoring opportunities but instead to make the most of the chances that do fall your way. In evergreen Kevin Phillips the Eagles have one of the game’s most accomplished and experienced finishers, so the quality of service to the striker will be vital.
Don’t shoot on sight
When a side is struggling to break down the opposing defence, it’s tempting to let fly from range and hope to catch the goalkeeper off guard. This is obviously much less of a sure thing than a shot from closer quarters, and in the Premier League from 2000/01 to the present day it’s taken an average of roughly 21 shots from outside the box to produce a goal. However in these encounters, despite taking 362 shots from outside the area between them, newly-promoted teams have only scored twice from this distance.
The two long range efforts which went in were certainly game changers – Kenny Miller’s fine run and finish in Wolves’ 1-0 triumph over Manchester United at Molineux in 2003/04 and Kevin Nolan’s thunderous volley for Bolton’s equaliser in their aforementioned win at Old Trafford in 2001/02 – but the fact that the other 360 were wasted doesn’t recommend this as a recipe for success.
Don’t let them work the ball in close
Another key difference between matches where the promoted team came away with at least a point and those in which they didn’t becomes clear when we focus on shots from inside the six yard box.
In the 16 matches where the title holders didn’t take all three points, their supposedly weaker opponents marginally out-shot them from this range: taking 13 shots and scoring eight of these while the champions took 12 and converted just four.
When you look at the other 62 matches where things went to plan for the favourites, they had over four times as many shots as their opponents from inside the six yard box: taking 75 shots to the underdogs’ 18 and scoring from 30 of these to their five.
While there’s probably a mixture of cause and effect at work here – when one side is outplaying the other they’re more likely to get the ball into favourable positions – the difference is telling. As we saw earlier, you can’t do much to stop the champions from creating chances, but history suggests that you can tip the scales in your favour by forcing them to shoot from further out.
The favourites’ threat from outside the penalty area in these fixtures is only marginally better than the average Premier League side down the years – they score once from roughly every 18 attempts – which is not anywhere near as threatening as the average of 2.6 shots they need to score from inside the six yard box.
Few will be putting their money on a Palace victory this weekend, but there have been just enough shocks down the years for them to be hopeful of springing a surprise. By resisting the urge to shoot from range, patrolling their penalty area with discipline and focusing on the quality of their shots rather than the quantity, they could make this a match to remember.