Second season syndrome

One of the narratives in sport is the so called ‘second season syndrome’. In short it describes a team or player who perform better than expected in their first season in a given competition, only for their performance to drop off dramatically the next time around. I can understand why people use narratives such as this one – papers and air time have to be filled somehow – but I’m typically very skeptical about how much they reflect reality. In this case it seems to me that for every Reading or Hull there’s a Fulham or Charlton who are equally as good, if not better, the second time around. The Fulham’s and Charlton’s don’t provide the opportunity for as sensational a story however.

Anyway, in terms of the premiership this should be measurable. Between the 1999/2000 and 2008/09 seasons there were 30 teams promoted to the premiership. Of those, 13 (43%) were relegated the following season and 17 (57%) remained in the top division. Below is a comparison of the performance of the two groups of teams during their first season


An explanation of shot ratio can be found here and here, for PDO see here and here.

Unsurprisingly the teams that are relegated take a lower proportion of shots and get worse luck than their counterparts who survive.

In order to investigate the ‘second season syndrome’ I’m actually interested in those 17 teams that stayed up and performance in the following season, year two. Firstly how do they do as a group?


League position, points and goal difference suggest that these teams are, in fact, worse in year two. On the other hand shots ratio is less conclusive, it drops slightly in year two but it’s small enough to be explained by variance. The drop in PDO suggests that as a group the teams got less luck the second time around – in part explaining the drop in points and goal difference.

How about the difference between those teams relegated in year two and those that survive for a second time?


This is where shot ratio proves its use in distinguishing between good and bad teams. League position, points and goal difference suggest that the two groups of teams were basically equivalent in year one whereas shot ratio tells a different story, suggesting that the teams relegated in year two were a) significantly worse at controlling the ball during year one than those that survived both times and b) their, already poor, ability to control the ball fell off a cliff in year two, ultimately leading to relegation.

The difference is even more obvious if we remove a major anomaly, Ipswich, from the exercise


In all I can see why the ‘second season syndrome’ is perceived to exist – the teams that avoid relegation in year one see a drop off in league position, points and goal difference in year two. In reality though it should be pretty easy to see which teams have overachieved and predict those most susceptible to ‘second season syndrome’ next time around.

One final thought to give this a bit of context. Lets see if we can identify which of the teams promoted last season are primed to see a drop off in performance next time around


We have three pretty distinct teams here:

It’s remarkable how well Swansea are tracking the profile of a team that gets relegated in year two. Poor possession numbers and a bit of luck this year could spell disaster next time around. For their sake I hope they’re able to keep hold of their key players this summer. Swansea are my favourites for the ‘second season syndrome’ tag.

Luck could play a big role in how Norwich do next season. Their possession numbers aren’t good and some bad luck would see them in and around the bottom three come the business end of the season. Again, keeping hold of a couple of key players could prove the difference between survival and relegation.

If it were to happen QPR would be one of the best teams ever to go down, only 3 of the last 36 teams relegated have had a shot ratio above 0.484. If they stay up, keep Mark Hughes and the current crop of players they’d be a good candidate for a ‘surprise’ top ten finish next season.


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