Long before the Christmas Games actually begin, the annual complaints of too many games begin in too short a time.
But is it really that bad and are we overestimating the importance of such a short time for shaping the season’s result? Is a game plan with four games in 12 or 14 days really that difficult with today’s bigger squads, fitter players and better informed coaches?
English league games were played on Christmas Day until 1965 (this lasted until 1976 in Scotland) and the teams played reverse games 24 hours later on Boxing Day. They often played three games in four days.
This year, despite coronavirus problems in the Premier League, four games are planned in a 14-day window.
In this modern era of the 20-team league, there were 26 complete seasons, one of which was interrupted by Covid-19, which left most teams four games during the holiday season – one just before Christmas, two between Boxing Day and New Years Day, and one Early in the new year before the third round of the FA Cup. The availability of 12 points can stimulate a title challenge or keep a fighting team safe.
At the top, the team that finished first on December 19 wins the league 54% of the time.
The average number of points that the future champion achieves over Christmas is 8.6, while the runner-up averages 7.4 points, which opens a slightly larger gap in the second half of the season.
What about the 46% of teams that failed in December despite being on top? Of these clubs, those who score six or more at Christmas have the consolation of keeping second place, but those who score five or less will have to compete for the last two Champions League places, even though no team, which comes into play at the top of the table Christmas has ever ended less than fourth.
There is bad news for Liverpool as they rank second in their festive games this season. Historically, prior to the start of the Christmas program, the team in second place only won the title 19% of the time, finished second 46% of the seasons, and missed the top four 15% of the time overall.
Speaking of Liverpool, they lost the Christmas edge more than anyone else. They took the lead five times on December 19 and took the title just once, averaging 5.8 points in the seasons they failed but nine points over Christmas during their triumphant 2019-20 season.
On the other hand, Chelsea was the most ruthless. The Blues held the top six times and converted the lead to silver five times while averaging nine points over Christmas.
Why a strong Christmas can be the key to relegation
The teams of the last three on December 19 were relegated 59% of the time. Sometimes the deficit is just too big to regain, no matter how well you do on Christmas. Thirteen teams were in the bottom three with nine points or less as of December 19, and all were ultimately relegated.
Fortunately for the current basement residents Burnley, Norwich and Newcastle, they have all passed the nine-point cut-off and thus stand a chance.
Historically, the bottom three teams with 16 or more points have never been relegated before Christmas, but none of this year’s three teams have reached that total.
And what about the teams that go into Christmas with 10 to 15 points? What return over Christmas gives realistic hopes for the New Year? For teams with this score, Christmas is so important. A 0-3 point gain has historically enabled 33% of that to avoid the decline, while a modest increase to 4-6 means 53% retain their Premier League status.
Aside from your actual score, your position in the table also has an impact. Only Leicester City and West Bromwich Albion were the last to find each other before the festive games and then survived at the end of the season.
Teams in 18th place survived almost 70% of the time with around four points won at Christmas, while teams just one place below got more points on average, but less than half of them survived.
If you look at the teams that got out of the bottom three over Christmas, they tend to do well for the rest of the season. Nineteen times a club pulled out of the bottom three by early January, and of those 74% managed to stay out of trouble.
Coventry (1996-97) and Southampton (2019-20) both won 10 points at Christmas, moving up from the last three to twelfth place in the table.
So there is still hope for all teams, but for players like Newcastle who face the two Manchester teams over Christmas, the likelihood of a double-digit point return is likely to be something of a Christmas miracle.