De La Soul once rapped that three is the magic number, but for relegation-threatened teams in the Premier League that hit song has been remixed as 40 is the magic number – it’s commonly held that that’s the points total required to guarantee survival.
But how true is such a notion? The truth is that teams can survive with fewer, with the 2022/23 campaign an example of how little it takes to stay up these days.
Judging by the fixture lists for those embroiled in the battle for survival, as little as 35 points could be all it takes to stay up – that carrot is what powered some extraordinary days of action towards the end of the campaign, including the record-breaking 21 goals scored in just three games involving Leicester City, Everton, Nottingham Forest and Southampton.
So would 35 points to survive be a normal outcome or an anomaly? How many points does it traditionally take to stave off relegation? Let’s take a dip into the history books.
The Early Years
Younger readers won’t remember as such, but the First Division became the Premier League in time for the 1992/93 season – a year in which Crystal Palace, Middlesbrough and Nottingham Forest faced the indignity of being the first teams to taste relegation from the newly-branded top flight.
But this was back in the days of the 22-team Premier League, and so the points tally required to stay up in the early years was higher than it is today in the 20-team era.
It wasn’t until the 1995/96 season that the Premier League was reduced to 20 teams, so that’s where our count begins.
Here’s a look at the three relegated teams each season and how many points were required to survive:
Relegated Premier League Teams – 1996 to 2000
|Season||18th (Pts)||19th (Pts)||20th (Pts)||Survival|
|1995/96||Man City (38)||QPR (33)||Bolton (29)||39 pts|
|1996/97||Sunderland (40)||Middlesbrough (39)||Nott’m Forest (34)||41 pts|
|1997/98||Bolton (40)||Barnsley (35)||Crystal Palace (33)||41 pts|
|1998/99||Charlton (36)||Blackburn (35)||Nott’m Forest (30)||37 pts|
|1999/00||Wimbledon (33)||Sheffield Weds (31)||Watford (24)||34 pts|
Even in this small sample, you can see the disparity of what it took to survive; from a high of 41 points in 1997 and ’98, to just 34 points during the 1999/2000 season.
For younger readers no, that isn’t a typo. Once upon a time, Manchester City were not a cash-rich mega-power, but instead a fairly mediocre club that spend a number of years yo-yoing up and down the English football pyramid.
The New Millennium
After the ‘Millennium bug’ failed to deliver the apocalypse it was apparently supposed to, the Premier League continued unbowed into the 21st century.
As was the case in the years prior, the number of points required to stave off relegation seemed inextricably linked to how competitive the Premier League was from top to bottom. For example, in 1997/98 only eleven teams notched 50 points or more – making the competition more of a level playing field; therefore, the sides at the bottom of the table had more chances to wrack up points.
Contrast that to 1999/2000, when thirteen teams claimed 50 or more points and the best of them – Manchester United – amassed a 91-point haul. Here, there were fewer points for the bottom-dwellers to fight for.
So how did the first five years of the new millennium shape up?
- 2000/01: Survival = 35 points
- 2001/02: Survival = 37 points
- 2002/03: Survival = 43 points
- 2003/04: Survival = 34 points
- 2004/05: Survival = 34 points
A trend for fewer points to survive began to emerge in this period, although the extraordinary 2002/03 campaign saw West Ham relegated despite racking up 42 points – just a season later, that would have been enough for them to finish sixteenth.
Ten Years of Pain
The misery that relegation affords a club’s players, staff and supporters may not have been diminished, although the advent of parachute payments in 2006 certainly made the financial upheaval of demotion from the Premier League a tad easier to stomach.
And that coincided with the job of staying up getting a touch easier, with 35, 39, 37 and 35 points all that was required between 2005/06 and 2008/09, before a remarkable season in 2009/10 which needed just 31 or more points to finish above Burnley, Hull City and Portsmouth in the dropzone.
A pattern was beginning to emerge: you didn’t need 40 points to survive anymore. Indeed, in just three of the prior 15 season had that figure been required – it was a complete myth that 40 points was the bare minimum required.
It’s Getting Easier
By 2010, the Premier League was becoming awash with investment from overseas – a time in which the rich have got richer and the poor have got….slightly less rich.
Those that have historically been at the top of the Premier League table continued to monopolise cash and points, so it’s no surprise that the trend for lower-points tallies down the bottom end of the standings has continued.
- 2010/11: Survival = 40 points
- 2011/12: Survival = 37 points
- 2012/13: Survival = 37 points
- 2013/14: Survival = 34 points
- 2014/15: Survival = 36 points
Just 37 points would have secured survival in four of the next five years, and the disparity between the haves and the have-nots continued over the next five-year span too.
Relegated Premier League Teams – 2016 to 2020
|Season||18th (Pts)||19th (Pts)||20th (Pts)||Survival|
|2015/16||Newcastle (37)||Norwich (34)||A Villa (17)||38 pts|
|2016/17||Hull (34)||M’boro (28)||Sunderland (24)||35 pts|
|2017/18||Swansea (33)||Stoke (33)||WBA (31)||34 pts|
|2018/19||Cardiff (34)||Fulham (26)||Huddersfield (16)||35 pts|
|2019/20||B’mouth (34)||Watford (34)||Norwich (21)||35 pts|
Between 1995/96 and 1999/2000, the average point tally needed for survival was 38.4. Between 2015/16 and 2019/20, this number had dropped to 35.4.
So is it getting easier to avoid relegation from the Premier League? From a points-gained perspective, absolutely.
In 2020/21, you’d have needed just 29 points to finish above Fulham, West Brom and Sheffield United, and in 2021/22 just 36 points would have been plenty to see off Burnley, Watford and Norwich City.
So the requirements to stay up in the Premier League are much easier these days, with a tally of 35 points certainly competitive. As for how to amass that tally, well, that’s the difficult part….