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Understandably our 19th position in the Premier League has given some Reading fans the jitters, with some already predicting a return to the Championship just six weeks into the season. Others have looked at the calibre of opposition and suggested that given the quality of opposition we're actually not doing too badly. With that I mind I decided to look at points performance against expectations to see if Reading and other predicted strugglers were living up to realistic expectations.
Ranking The Premier League
The Premier League is generally said to comprise of around 3-4 mini leagues. There are those teams fighting out for the top four places, the outside top four contenders hoping for the Europa League, the safe but not spectacular mid-table sides and then those teams that are facing a long season to stay up.
Slotting teams into those brackets is tough but using a combination of track record, summer activity and current season performance here's who I'd place into each bracket.
Top 4 :
READING, QPR, Norwich, Swansea, Villa, Southampton, Wigan
As the five teams who have occupied the top four over the past three years I don't think many can argue against the top band. In terms of the second group, while Liverpool have struggled in the last couple of years, they've still got one of the strongest starting XI's in the Pemier League and I'd expect them to be in or close to the top eight come the seasons end. Perhaps Sunderland, Fulham or West Brom might well take Liverpool's place but on any given day I'd far rather face those three than Liverpool. The only other contentious grading could be West Ham. While it's true we finished above them last year they've made great improvements to a side that was arguably already built for the Premier League and the addition of Andy Carroll and Matt Jarvis should give them the extra touch of quality to stay away from major relegation worries.
Show Me The Points!
As Reading are what I'd consider a struggler, the below is what I'd expect as a supporter.
Most teams will agree that you pretty much write off those games against the top four challengers. Maybe you sneak one or two points over the course of the campaign but generally anything is considered a bonus.
Against those three I've tagged as Europa League sides, you hope for one win over the course of the season
The middle of the road guys you're targeting three points from every home game and perhaps hoping to nick theodd point away. A home draw or defeat isn't terrible but it leaves you needing some points away from home.
And against your fellow strugglers every point matters and ideally you're hoping for at least four and preferably six. Losing more than five games and dropping 15 points from the 12 games would be a massive and almost fatal blow.
Based on those here's the targets based on the least you should be targeting and the most points you cwill be expecting to take away.
WORST BEST TOP 4 0/30 2/30 EUROPA 3/18 9/18 MIDDLE 15/30 21/30 STRUGGLERS 21/36 30/36 TOTALS 39 62
These days 39 points should be enough to keep you up as only two sides with 39 points have gone down since 1998. On the other hand 62 points would have you challenging for the Europa League, a points total that Ipswich managed to achieve en route to a fifth placed finish back in 2001.
Getting such a good quantity of points against fellow strugglers isn't just important for your own points tally, it's vital in denying other teams the chance to escape at your expense. Reading's previous relegation in 2008 was a good example of the need to beat the teams around you rather than those higher up as despite wins against Liverpool and Everton, Reading slipped out of the league in part due to giving away six points each to Fulham and Bolton who then stayed up at our expense.
The Story So Far
Based on the above then are Reading over or under par in the Premier League so far?
OPPONENT CLASS TARGET BEST ACTUAL STOKE (H) MID 3 3 1 CHELSEA (A) TOP 4 0 0 0 TOTTENHAM (H) TOP 4 0 1 0 WEST BROM (A) MID 1 3 0 NEWCASTLE (H) EUROPA 0 1 1 TOTAL 4 8 2
Reading would have been hoping to take three points from a mid-table quality side Stoke and perhaps a point at West Brom so in all have under performed by two-three points against the middle of the pack. On the bright side earning a point against a Europa League side in Newcastle puts us well towards our three point minimum target for the year.
Just one point from a possible six against the middle teams is a bit disappointing though and it leaves us aiming for 12 points from a remaining 24 available, in other words, winning four from eight. We also still need to hit that 21 points mark against the weakest teams, the first of whom is Swansea on Saturday.
So the Royals have just slightly under performed but how have the rest of the strugglers performed judging by the above expectations?
MINIMUM MAXIMUM ACTUAL +/- MIN READING 4 8 2 -2 VILLA 5 13 5 0 QPR 7 10 2 -5 NORWICH 7 10 3 -4 SO'TON 6 7 3 -3 SWANSEA 10 16 7 -3 WIGAN 5 10 4 -1
Again these are rough estimates at a very early stage in the season but QPR, Swansea and Norwich will be slightly worried that they've under performed given the nature of their early season opponents.
QPR in particular will be a bit nervous as they've had three winnable games against Swansea, Norwich and West Ham and have only taken one point. They did pick up a draw against Chelsea which they wouldn't have budgeted for but that's still at least 5 points below the minimum they'd have been hoping for overall.
Southampton have had the hardest start to the season of the teams expected to struggle. The Saints faced three top four sides, as well as Everton inside their first four games and unsurprisingly they failed to earn anything from those games. That's not vital in the grand scheme of things and they got a critical three points against Villa but will be very disappointed to drop three points at home to fellow strugglers Wigan.
Swansea meanwhile have taken the most points in the strugglers group but have also had the most they could realistically aim for. Their first six games have been against QPR (A), West Ham (H), Sunderland (H), Villa (A), Everton (H), Stoke (A) all games which you could have seen them picking up something. Everton at home is the one game you wouldn't expect them to win but the other five are all games you'd be hoping for three points and expecting at least one. Taking seven points doesn't leave them too far below target but that's 11 points that have already slipped through the net, lessening their chances for error later in the year.
The main message from the above is that Reading have only very slightly under performed while avoiding dropping too many winnable points. Ideally we'd want to be on at least four points at this stage but in the grand scheme of things the best we could have realistically targeted is seven points, so a two point drop on minimum and five on maximum isn't that bad.
When you consider the points that Swansea, QPR and Norwich have already dropped it puts our start into a much better light, knowing that comparatively speaking they've dropped far less than us. A point at West Brom and two extra against Stoke would have been brilliant but those are really the only three points you'd have hoped us to get, while even losing against an expected mid-table Baggies side is ok as it's on their patch.
The differing quality of a team's first few opponents is exactly the reason you shouldn't pay too much attention to the league table early on. If Reading had just two points after playing the opposition that Swansea had faced we'd have every right to be disappointed but as it is, even with five more points than us it's the Swans fans who'll possibly be just as apprehensive given the challenges to come.
Of course it's possible to throw all of the above out the window and pick up points against much bigger teams. Wigan and QPR both pulled off remarkable results in the closing weeks to stay up last year but by and large you do not want to be in a scenario where you need points against much stronger sides to survive.
Reading's next eight includes five games against strugglers, two Europa League sides and the visit of 'mid-table' Fulham to the Madejski. Using the same system above here's what we'll be targeting.
Reading Next 8: Minimum: 8 Maximum: 19
if Reading get anything less than eight points then it'll be a very worrying sign that a long season of struggle awaits but optimistically we'll be targeting points from every game with the possible exception of Liverpool and Everton.
Overall, let's not rush in to panic and lets not get overly concerned with a five game sample. Fans often say in the pub 'well at the start of the season you'd have settled for that' and generally speaking Reading have done OK against the expectations. Even more importantly Reading are competing against several other strugglers this year and few of them have been performing to expectations either so there's plenty of reason to think we can be out of the bottom three come May. While we don't want to be relying on other teams to be awful we just need three of them to be worse than us to stay up.
So what do you think? Are we roughly on target with what we should be getting or is it already time to push the panic button? Let us know your thoughts in the comments section below.