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Why Staying Out Of The Bottom 2 Is Priority One

Avoiding relegation should be the primary concern for Rovers

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Posted: 02/08/18

By | Matthew Evans | @M_R_Evans1

mevans@deadlysubmarine.com

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Welcome to the penultimate day of Deadly Submarine's countdown to the 2018-19 League Two season. Last season, summer departures, summer recruits — we've discussed a variety of topics during the previous eight entries, all of which are available using the links at the bottom of the page. If you haven't yet read them, there's plenty to keep you occupied — perhaps on the way to Stevenage?

With just two days left until Tranmere kick an EFL football around a pitch for the first time since May 2015, it is now time to turn our attentions to the League Two campaign.

Here, we examine the idea that avoiding relegation should be the primary concern for Rovers this term.

The Statistics

Over the past few days, we have attempted to convey the sheer transformation both on and off the field at Prenton Park during the last three seasons. Hot on the coattails of a tremendous play-off success, an article prioritising League Two safety may come across as negative in certain quarters.

That is certainly not the intention. Nonetheless, there is a need for an objective assessment of the task at hand. To do this, Deadly Submarine has compiled a list of key statistics to highlight the difficulty with which many clubs make the transition from the National League to League Two. These crucial data points can be found in Fig 1 below.

Previous Season National League Champions' Position National League Play-off Winners' Position Min. Points Required: Automatic Promotion Min. Points Required: Play-off Place Min. Points Required: Avoid Relegation
2017-18 7th 21st 81 73 47
2016-17 21st 14th 78 70 47
2015-16 15th 3rd (P) 86 70 35
2014-15 8th 19th 85 69 42
2013-14 11th 14th 77 63 51
2012-13 13th 17th 77 68 52
2011-12 3rd (P) 16th 84 71 45
2010-11 6th (P) 12th 80 69 48
2009-10 13th 17th 74 71 45
2008-09 15th 2nd (P) 79 69 38
2007-08 20th 11th 83 70 43
2006-07 20th 16th 85 72 37
2005-06 18th 1st (P) 79 64 50
2004-05 20th 21st 79 73 39
2003-04 8th 1st (P) 82 75 46
Fig 1: Table showing the respective positions of promoted teams and the minimum points required for automatic promotion, play-off qualification and to avoid relegation over the past fifteen seasons in League Two. .

In 2002-03, play-offs were introduced into the fifth tier of English football, bringing with them a second promotion place into the EFL.

Since that date, over fifteen seasons, thirty teams have taken the jump to the fourth tier. Of those thirty, just six (20%) have gone on to secure a second successive promotion, with seven (23%) reaching the top seven positions.

Whilst no team has been immediately returned to the fifth tier, eighteen of the thirty (60%) promoted teams have ended their first EFL campaign in the bottom half of the table. Perhaps surprisingly, the fifth-tier play-off winners tend to fare better than the champions, with an average finishing position of 12th comparing favourably to the title winners' 13th.

Such an average position may appear an argument against becoming involved in the relegation battle, but caution needs to be exercised when addressing the average. Heavily skewed by the promotion successes of Doncaster Rovers (2002-03), Carlisle United (2005-06), Exeter City (2008-09) and Bristol Rovers (2015-16), the average finishing position for play-off winners without those clubs is 16th — firmly rooted in the bottom half of the table.

Indeed, 2016-17 National League champions Lincoln City are the only other promoted club to qualify for the play-offs from the twelve most recent League Two arrivals, losing their semi-final tie to Exeter City. Forest Green Rovers, the side that comfortably beat Tranmere in the 2016-17 National League play-off final, ended their maiden EFL campaign in 21st — just one point above the relegation zone.

The statistics show that returning to the EFL may be harder than some envisage and, whilst examples such as Bristol Rovers and Exeter City reveal the possibility of a double promotion for fifth-tier play-off winners, the 60% of teams placing in the bottom half indicates the first priority should be on securing safety.

Pragmatism

Such a statement should not be viewed as a negative.

Returning to Fig 1, we can see the minimum points totals required to guarantee automatic promotion, play-off qualification and to avoid relegation over the past fifteen years.

To secure automatic promotion, the maximum was 86 (2015-16), the minimum was 74 (2009-10) and the average was 81.

To qualify for the play-offs, the maximum was 75 (2003-04), the minimum was 63 (2013-14) and the average was 70.

To avoid relegation, the maximum was 52 (2012-13), the minimum was 35 (2015-16) and the average was 44.

Taking these totals into consideration, a total of 53 points should be enough to secure safety in the EFL. Naturally, this cannot guarantee the Club will survive, but they would be incredibly unfortunate to be relegated with the highest-ever total.

The number 53 should therefore become engrained in the psyche, as it's the number that all but ensures the past three years' toil, sweat and tears will not go up in smoke after a solitary season in League Two. Forget expecting promotion in the short-term. Yes, it can occur, and the players have the experience of winning far more often that they have lost, yet statistically it is somewhat unlikely.

Instead, why not use the spectre of a National League return as a motivation? There are twenty-four clubs determined to take that EFL place from Tranmere, with twenty-three more than willing to allow them to in return for defending their own position. The first and foremost objective must surely be securing a second EFL season and then, if time allows, see how far up the table Rovers can finish?

The SWA are scheduled to play twenty-five league matches before the end of December 2018, with a possible 75 points up for grabs. If the average tally to stay up has been 44, collecting just 59% of points available before New Year would take the Club through that number. In a somewhat contradictory fashion, aiming for safety could provide a platform for further ambitions in the second half of 2018-19.

It is also important to note that, whilst advocating safety as a first priority, we are not suggesting it should be the season's only objective. We are merely expressing the opinion that only an immediate relegation could be classed as a failure in the Club's first season back in the EFL.

In that spirit, unless the Club is in the bottom two beyond the midway point, the players, Club and SWA should be allowed to acclimatise in the EFL without the immense pressure of expectation that has hung over them for three years.

If a promotion comes, brilliant. But we'll save expecting one for 2019-20 and beyond.

Remember: Check back tomorrow for the conclusion of our ten-day countdown to the 2018-19 season.