For most, Christmas means the advent of holidays and putting their feet up. But for football clubs in leagues across Europe, clubs will be breaking a sweat. It is the point where each club would have played once against every other club in the league, and it marks the culmination of the group stages of the two major pan-European tournaments. It is the time when clubs assess their halfway performance, and gear up for their own shopping season in January.
It means different things to different clubs. For bottom league clubs, it is how to avoid being relegated. For top clubs, it is whether the league title or at least a top-four finish (the pathway to the main European tournament) is within reach. A case in point is the English Premier League (EPL) today, where Liverpool are looking good for their first title since 1989-90, while chasers Leicester City and Manchester City are hoping that second-half expectations will make Liverpool freeze.
They can clutch to a narrow opening offered by data from the last 10 years, which shows the EPL to be more open at the top than other leagues. We broke down data into two halves for the top 5 leagues for the last 10 completed seasons, beginning 2009-10. In Spain and Italy, 8 of 10 times, the leader at Christmas was the eventual winner. But in England and France, that was the case only 6 times.
Manchester City have chased to a title. They are one of the three sides to have won 2 titles in the last 10 years despite not holding the top position at the Christmas break, the other being Bayern Munich in Germany and Juventus in Italy.
Last year, City closed a gap of 7 points to Liverpool, but this year they are faced with twice as many. Interestingly, this Christmas break, all three clubs find themselves in the chasing pack, two of them tantalisingly so. Bayern are in third place and only four points behind in the Bundesliga title race, and Juventus are tied with Inter Milan on points but are second only on goal difference. The second half there could offer much.
Leading clubs have two goals. Besides the title race, clubs want a spot in the Champions League --- the premier European competition --- next year. In most leading leagues, that means a top-4 finish. About 71% of the time, teams that were in the top 4 at Christmas also finished in the top 4.
But there’s variance among leagues. In the EPL, while the title race has seen to turn across the two halves, the same is not the case with a top-4 finish. As much as 82% of the time, a top-4 presence in the EPL continues from the first half to the second, underscoring the chasm between the top tier and the next tier.But there’s relatively more churn in Germany, France and Italy.
In England, only 6 clubs have finished in the top 4 in the last 10 years. In other leagues, that number stands at around 9-10. Taking a look at the leagues as they stand today, it is close in three of the five leagues for the fourth spot. In France, there are 4 teams within 3 points (effectively, one result) of the fourth spot. There are 3 teams apiece in Germany and Spain. Italy and England are the only leagues where no team is within one-result distance.
Among the top teams, it’s rare for a club to jump many positions in the second half. There’s a Jurgen Klopp-led Borussia Dortmund that gained 10 places to finish 7th in 2014-15. Or, there’s a Liverpool, which gained 5 places to finish 6th.
Among 14 major clubs across leagues, in the last 10 years, they have held onto their position 45% of the time, gained positions 31% of the time and dropped positions 24% of the time. In other words, three-fourths of the time, the top cubs are holding on to or gaining positions in the second half.
In the past few years, a side that has made a mark for second-half gains, including two surges into the top 4, has been Tottenham Hotspur. It gained 4 positions in 2016-17 and 3 positions in 2017-18. At present, Tottenham sits in the seventh position, six points off the top 4, after being outplayed by Chelsea. Yet, with the ballast of a new manager Jose Mourinho, it will be keen to make another surge. If it does, it will still be an exception, not the norm.