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A loss to Swansea has cast doubts on West Brom's early rise. AFP
A loss to Swansea has cast doubts on West Brom's early rise. AFP

Form in Premier League decided only on comparison

Put simply, play easy games early on and a side's position is artificially inflated.

The league table never lies. Except it does; always and often. It is the best way of judging a team's ability at the end of the season of course - the only way, realistically - and yet it rarely tells the whole story.

The mathematician James Walmsley, for instance, a fellow of All Souls College, Oxford, has calculated that, to even out fluctuations of form (that is, how well opponents are playing when your team happens to play them, something he estimated by looking at each team's previous five results) the season would have to be seven times longer than it actually is.

But there is an even simpler way in which the table, even a little over a third of the way into the season, shouldn't be taken as the whole picture. And that's the fixture list.

Put simply, play easy games early on and a side's position is artificially inflated.

That can breed confidence and lead to better results in tougher games. Over a full 38 matches, though, there tends to be at least a partial regression to the mean.

West Bromwich Albion earned great praise for their start to the season; after 13 matches they were third. It isn't particularly unusual for an unfancied team to find themselves pushing for a Champions League spot at that stage.

At the same point two years ago, Bolton Wanderers were fifth. In 2006/07, Portsmouth were third. The year before that, Wigan Athletic were second. Wigan ended up 2005/06 10th, Portsmouth were ninth in 2006/07 and Bolton were 14th two seasons back.

West Brom's reversion to the mean has already begun. There was nonsensical talk after last Wednesday's defeat at Swansea City that they had begun to believe the hype and had become complacent.

A way of assessing a side's true form is to compare to equivalent results the previous season.

After 10 games, West Brom were exactly level with results against the same teams last season. Wins at Wigan and Sunderland, both of which matches they drew last year, took them four points better than par. Defeat at Wigan and at home to Stoke, both games lost last season, has not changed that.

Swansea's win at Arsenal, meanwhile, means they are now six ahead of where they were in the equivalent games last year.

The table may show West Brom fifth, three points clear of Swansea in seventh (they both finished last season on 47 points), but it is arguably Swansea who are having the better season.



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