The Quarter Pole: Why the Schedule Fails to Explain Away Newcastle's Start

A win over Wigan Athletic is nothing to write home about, but it's more than last season's squad managed.

We're at the quarter pole for the Premier League season.  Well, almost.  The true quarter pole will be at halftime of the next game, and Tottenham Hotspur and Everton still haven't played their opening week fixture.  Why do we care?  Well, in other sports, most notably baseball, the quarter pole is traditionally when writers feel comfortable drawing conclusions from early results.  Of course, statistical studies have shown that the numbers stabilize at widely different points, and the quarter pole tradition is mostly bunk, but I feel that we've seen enough of this season that we can start to say certain things definitively.

One thing I want to declare is that Newcastle's start can no longer be described as a flash in the pan.  This team is real.  (Please don't misread this to say that I believe they'll never lose, or that they'll be in fourth place at the end of the season.)  I'll explain after the jump.

Before we jump into this season's common critique of Newcastle - the schedule - let's examine some basic facts.  Last season, Newcastle's best unbeaten streak in league play was 4, which they achieved on 3 separate occasions.  The longest unbeaten streak was held by the champions, Manchester United, at 24.  The runners up, Chelsea, had a string of 10 unbeaten games.  Of the rest of the teams, only Arsenal (16, 4th place) and Tottenham Hotspur (9, 5th place) equaled or bettered what the Magpies have accomplished so far this season.

Does that guarantee a Top 6 finish for Newcastle?  Of course not.  It does show, though, that streaks like this don't happen all the time, and certainly not to bad teams.  There are several cliches that apply here:

  • "All you can do is play the teams in front of you."
  • "These teams play in the Premier League for a reason."
  • "Good teams beat bad teams consistently."

That last saying is the main takeaway point from this post.  I mentioned above that Newcastle's best unbeaten streak in league play in 2010-11 was four.  That equaled the worst streak in the league.  Last year's squad had a lot of distractions surrounding them: the off-the-pitch shenanigans of Andy Carroll, his subsequent sale, the sacking of Chris Hughton, etc etc.  In other words, it was a typical three-ring circus.  More notably for these purposes, Newcastle were consistently inconsistent.  The Toon took 11 points from 12 games against the so-called "Sky Six," but they also managed 1 point each against fellow promotees Wigan Athletic and Blackpool.  The 20 points they gained against teams that ended up in the bottom six was better, but way less than ideal.  In fact, let's break down their 2010-11 results, based on how their opponents finished the previous year:

Top 4: 1-5-2, 8 pts (1 ppg)

5-7 (Europa): 2-0-4, 6 pts (1 ppg)

8-10: 3-1-2, 10 pts (1.667 ppg)

11-17: 5-5-4, 20 pts (1.428 ppg)

Recently Promoted: 0-2-2, 2 pts (0.5 ppg)

What does this tell us?  If we want to speak exclusively in sound bites, we can say that Newcastle were capable of elevating their play when facing tough foes, but often played down to the competition when the opponent was less prestigious.  This is what we mean when we say that they were inconsistent.  In general, most close observers of the Magpies believe they were a better team than the one that lost to Wigan Athletic 3-1 on December 5, leading to the sacking of Chris Hughton the next day.

So far this season, the Toon have proven that they are at the very least capable of gaining points from teams they are supposed to be competitive with, which is not something they could claim last year.  Whether or not they can elevate their game a la late season draws with both Manchester United and Chelsea remains to be seen.  We will learn a lot about this team in the coming weeks.  Assuming the next few fixtures aren't a complete disaster (not out of the realm of possibility, but not probable, either), supporters can feel good about the current state of the club, knowing at the very least that this is a team that does not overlook soft spots in the schedule - finally.

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