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Relegation Watch 2013: Newcastle Win by Not Losing Ground

It's March 3 and we're still worried about survival. How long until Newcastle can shut the door on relegation talk?

Michael Regan

Every time I sit down to put together a Relegation Watch, I come away convinced that it will be the last time I'll need to mention Newcastle as a serious relegation candidate. I'm not sure you can quite classify them as a serious candidate anymore, but they had a golden chance to make this feature obsolete on Saturday and threw it away. I bring you another edition of Relegation Watch 2013 with a heavy heart, therefore, but do not despair! This message bears glad tidings, for though the Toon did not gain any points this week, they have put valuable space between them and the drop zone. Here's the table, which is current as of Sunday morning:

Plc Team GP GR Pts GF GA GD ExPts PrPts
14 Sunderland 28 10 30 31 38 -7 33 41.8
15 Newcastle 28 10 30 38 49 -11 32 41.4
16 Southampton 28 10 27 39 51 -12 31.7 38.3
17 Wigan 28 10 24 33 55 -22 26.5 33.5
18 Aston Villa 27 11 24 26 52 -26 22 33
19 Reading 28 10 23 34 54 -20 27.5 32.8
20 QPR 28 10 20 21 44 -23 21.9 27.8

This past weekend's fixtures couldn't have gone much better for Newcastle, their own match notwithstanding. Sunderland managed a draw and QPR a win, but everybody else lost (and Aston Villa play Manchester City on Monday). Basically, everybody spent a week running to stand still, and that's good news for all of the teams currently higher up in the table, as there are fewer weeks left for the teams below to gain points and catch them. In other words, it was a good week for Sunderland, Newcastle, and Southampton, but Wigan Athletic, Villa, Reading, and Queens Park Rangers should be getting more and more worried. It's beginning to look more and more like a four team race for 17th place. The other teams here could be caught, of course. That's why they're listed. However, time is running short, and it won't be long before three points plus a significant difference in goal differential is a near-insurmountable lead.

Before we proceed and look forward to the last 10 weeks of the season, I'd like to clear up a few things about the table we have been using. As you may remember, we stole a formula constructed by Martin Eastwood to calculate each team's Expected Points, which is based on goal differential, and we have also prorated that formula to come up with Projected Points, which is simply Expected Points on a 38-game scale. The ExPts formula is designed to use the goals scored and goals allowed statistics to give us an idea about how a team's results match up with their performances. Reading's numbers, for example, show us that more often than not they have failed to squeak out points in close performances. Perhaps they have a lopsided victory or two that's weighing against them. We can look at each team's results and say things like, "Well, there's a loss that should have been a draw," and this formula quantifies that for us, rather than letting us do lazy guesswork.

What these formulas do not do is predict the future exactly as it's going to happen. Because PrPts is based on past information, it tells us what the rest of the season would look like if it unfolded just as it has to this point. The model does not take into account strength of schedule, mid-season player movement, injury, or recent form. That doesn't mean it's useless - PrPts gives us a more concrete idea about just how far above the drop zone a team is (or below the four Champions League spots, etc). For example, Newcastle's six point lead is like to expand to 8 or 9 by the end of the season, based on the trajectory of all teams involved. However, PrPts is not a complex model that takes into account probable lineups or tactics, for instance, so it should be used as another piece of information that can help fill in gaps of knowledge. It's not the end-all, be-all. Basically, you should use it responsibly, just like any other statistic.

So having said all that, we know that not every team's last 10-11 matches are created equal. Some teams have more six-pointers than others. That's a good thing, as they should be seen as opportunities either to make up ground or to pull away from the pack. For the foreseeable future, we should be rooting for draws in all matches not involving Newcastle, especially when both of the bottom four teams are involved. Two points distributed amongst our enemies is better than three points given to one. Draws preserve the status quo, and that's exactly what we want. Here are the 12 six-point matches left:

9 March

QPR vs. Sunderland
Reading vs. Aston Villa

16-17 March

Aston Villa vs. QPR
Wigan vs. Newcastle

6-7 April

Reading vs. Southampton
QPR vs. Wigan

13 April

Newcastle vs. Sunderland

27-28 April

Aston Villa vs. Sunderland
Reading vs. QPR

12 May

QPR vs. Newcastle
Sunderland vs. Southampton

19 May

Wigan vs. Aston Villa

QPR's win over Reading on Saturday was obviously huge, because it brought them back to striking distance. With five more matches against relegation bunkmates left to go and Loic Remy actually scoring goals for the Hoops, they have ample opportunity to make one of the more improbable comebacks in recent memory. Many people have left QPR for dead, myself included, but the race could be much closer than our table suggests. Meanwhile, Reading and Wigan only have three chances to control their own destiny left, which is certainly bad news for them. It might be that both teams are so far behind on the last day of the season that the Wigan - Aston Villa match will be of no consequence. If Villa can manage even one win over the next two weeks, that's a likely scenario. If not, they'll languish in the drop zone until that final week. For the sake of having a dramatic finish to the season (and for Newcastle's own safety, of course), that's what I'm rooting for.