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What does the stadium transition mean for Spurs’ performances?

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An alternative explanation for this season’s rougher games

Tottenham Hotspur v Manchester United - Premier League Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

Spurs have not started this season as sparklingly as we might have hoped. On the other hand, we seem to be sailing steadily enough—Saturday’s win at West Ham means we’ve now won as many Premier League games as any other team. I’d describe the beginning of the season as lukewarm. There’s cause for both hope and concern about the Spurs team, but they’ve been grinding out good-enough performances in most games.

Much has been made of our summer transfer inactivity, and fans will always nurse gripes about Pochettino’s team and tactical decisions, but lately I’ve been wondering about a stadium-sized elephant in the room, and whether the absence of White Hart Lane could be hurting us on the field. I’ve already written about how Daniel Levy mismanaged the club’s relationship with fans during the stadium transition, but now I’m wondering if the transition could be affecting players, too. After all, every move is somewhat traumatic, and for a team that’s used to playing half its games in the same place, a change of home venue could be potentially disruptive. To find out if that is often the case for teams in transition, I’ve compiled data from four other Premier League clubs: Arsenal, Manchester City, Southampton, and West Ham. Each has made a stadium move in the last 20 years.

Background

The new stadium was supposed to be finished by the start of this season so that we would only spend one season (2017-18) without a true home stadium. That leaves us in a kind of limbo: we aren’t in our new stadium, but we’re still away from our old stadium. The 2017-18 season represented a slowing of our steady ascension over the past five years. It was the first season that we didn’t exceed the previous season’s Premier League performance, but we still finished third in the PL and performed well in the Champions League. The season before that (2016-17) was our best, and we didn’t lose a single home game across all competitions, but we suffered a weak away record, leading to concerns about our ability to perform in 2017-18 without a true home stadium.

Those concerns proved to be well-founded, because last season we lost two matches and drew four at home in the Premier League, dropping 14 points at home, compared to just four points dropped at home in 2016-17. This season, we’ve already lost one game at home—albeit to an elite Liverpool side—suggesting that we may still be suffering for not having a true home stadium. It’s worth noting that our situation is unique because most teams move directly from one home stadium to another in successive seasons, rather than vacating a home stadium for a period of time while a new one is built on the old one’s footprint, so our transition may be trickier and more difficult than others.

For this analysis, I’m going to focus on Premier League stats, because more meaningful trends emerge from 38 Premier League games across opponents of various quality than from the results of tournaments, which are more significantly impacted by single-game outcomes. Finally, before I dig in, it’s important to note that I’m not probing the possibility of a causal relationship between stadium moves and poor performance, as four teams are far too small a sample size to make any confident predictions, but instead examining whether there is a correlative relationship that might help us consider this season.

Arsenal

Competition 2002-03 2003-04 2004-05 2005-06 2006-07 (first season at the Emirates) 2007-08 2008-09 Average (mean for PL records, median for tournament records)
Competition 2002-03 2003-04 2004-05 2005-06 2006-07 (first season at the Emirates) 2007-08 2008-09 Average (mean for PL records, median for tournament records)
Premier League position 2 1 2 4 4 3 4 2.86
Premier League points 78 90 83 67 68 83 72 77.29
Premier League goal difference 43 47 51 37 28 43 31 40
Premier League record (W-D-L) 23-9-2006 26-12-2000 25-8-2005 20-7-11 19-11-2008 24-11-2003 20-12-2006 -
FA Cup Won Semi finals Won Fourth round Fifth round Fifth round Semi finals Semi finals
League Cup Third place Semi finals Quarter finals Semi finals Runners-up Semi finals Quarter finals Semi finals
Champions League Second group stage Quarter finals Round of 16 Runners-up Round of 16 Quarter finals Semi finals Quarter finals

Arsenal’s transition was made easier by the fact that the Emirates was built on a different plot from Highbury, so they did not have a season away from their home stadium: they finished the 2005-06 season at Highbury and began 2006-07 at the Emirates. At that time, Arsenal were good (preposterous, I know). Their “invincible” season was 2003-04, and they continued to be a strong side for seasons afterward. For the sake of comparison, I’ve included the four seasons prior to their move and their first three seasons in the new stadium.

In their first three seasons in the Emirates, Arsenal under-performed relative to the four seasons before the move, although the declining performance trend actually began the previous season. Most important for our consideration is how they performed in their first season in the new stadium, 2006-07: they had their second-worst season of the seven-year period, failing to improve on the previous season, their worst of the seven year period. They began to play better in subsequent seasons, but did not replicate their incredible form of the 2002-05 seasons. This matters because we’ve been on the rise for the past couple seasons, and last season, our first away from White Hart Lane, we plateaued. If Arsenal turns out to be typical of how teams perform after leaving their stadiums, we ought to be careful that we continue our upward trend despite the potential bump in the road.

Manchester City

Competition 2000-01 2001-02 *played in second tier 2002-03 2003-04 (first season at the Etihad) 2004-05 2005-06 Average (mean for league, median for tournaments)
Competition 2000-01 2001-02 *played in second tier 2002-03 2003-04 (first season at the Etihad) 2004-05 2005-06 Average (mean for league, median for tournaments)
Premier League position 18 1* 9 16 8 15 13.2
Premier League points 34 99* 51 41 52 43 44.2
Premier League goal difference -24 56* -7 1 8 -5 -5.4
Premier League record (W-D-L) 8-10-20 31-6-9* 15-6-17 9-14-15 13-13-12 13-4-21
FA Cup Fifth round Fifth round Third round Fourth round Third round Quarter finals Fourth round/quarter finals
League Cup Fifth round Fourth round Third round Fifth round Third round Second round Third round/fourth round

The seasons surrounding Manchester City’s stadium move were turbulent, to say the least. They earned promotion to the Premier League for the 2000-01 season, then were relegated at the end of that season. They then fluctuated between eighth and 16th in the table over the next few seasons. Because of this inconsistency between seasons, it would be inaccurate to draw a tidy directional trend across the time period in question like was possible to do in the case of Arsenal. Instead, our answer can be found in comparing their first season in the Etihad to other individual seasons. From that perspective, their first season after the move was their second-worst of the five PL seasons in question. They managed only a +1 goal difference and 41 points, their worst points total of the period between 2002 and 2006 when they managed to remain in the PL for successive seasons. After their respective moves, neither Man City nor Arsenal outperformed their typical season.

West Ham

Competition 2012-13 2013-14 2014-15 2015-16 2016-17 (first season in the Olympic Stadium) 2017-18 Average (mean for PL stats, median for tournament stats)
Competition 2012-13 2013-14 2014-15 2015-16 2016-17 (first season in the Olympic Stadium) 2017-18 Average (mean for PL stats, median for tournament stats)
Premier League position 10 13 12 7 11 13 11
Premier League points 46 40 47 62 45 42 47
Premier League goal difference -8 -11 -3 14 -17 -20 -7.5
Premier League record (W-D-L) 12-10-16 11-7-20 12-11-15 16-14-8 12-9-17 10-12-16
FA Cup Third round Third round Fifth round Sixth round Third round Fourth round third/fourth round
League Cup Third round Semi finals Second round Third round Fifth round Quarter-finals Fourth round
Europa League Did not qualify Did not qualify Did not qualify Third qualifying round Play-off round Did not qualify Did not qualify

West Ham moved into the Olympic Stadium for the 2016-17 season hot on the heels of their best Premier League season in over a decade. In 2015-16, inspired by Dimitri Payet’s on-field quality and the guidance of new manager Slaven Bilic, they finished 7th and earned a club-record 62 points. Payet left for Marseille that summer, and Bilic was sacked before Christmas in 2016. West Ham finished 2016-17 in 11th place with 45 points. Not bad, but nowhere near as good as the previous season might have promised. Taking a broader view and comparing 2016-17 to all six seasons in the table, the 2016-17 season resulted in their second-worst goal difference and third-worst points total. It’s hard to read too much into results from a single season, but it’s worth noting that for the three seasons before their move (2013-14, 14-15, 15-16), the Hammers had been consistently improving across goal difference, points, and final table position, and they effectively returned to their earlier ways upon moving to the new stadium.

Southampton

Competition 1997-98 1998-99 1999-2000 2000-01 2001-02 (first season at St. Mary's Stadium) 2002-03 2003-04 Average (mean for PL stats, median for tournaments)
Competition 1997-98 1998-99 1999-2000 2000-01 2001-02 (first season at St. Mary's Stadium) 2002-03 2003-04 Average (mean for PL stats, median for tournaments)
Premier League position 12 17 15 10 11 8 12 12.14
Premier League points 48 41 44 52 45 52 47 47
Premier League goal difference -5 -27 -17 -8 -8 -3 -1 -9.86
Premier League record (W-D-L) 14-6-18 11-8-19 12-8-18 14-10-14 12-9-17 13-13-12 12-11-15
FA Cup Third round Third round Fourth round Fifth round Third round Runners-up Third round Third round
League Cup Fourth round Second round Fourth round Third round Fourth round Third round Fifth round Fourth round

Two fun facts about Southampton at this time: first, they finished above Spurs in four out of these seven seasons (we hovered around twelfth at that time); and second, former Spurs great Glenn Hoddle managed them for the second half of the 1999-2000 season and the 2000-01 season until March, when he returned to Tottenham as a manager. Southampton would have done well to sack whoever was recruiting managers at this time: prior to joining Southampton, Hoddle had been dismissed from the England job for making a horrible remark about people with disabilities. At Southampton he replaced Dave Jones, who was being investigated for child sexual abuse (of which he was later acquitted.)

Trivia aside, Southampton made the best transition of the four teams in question. Though they performed slightly worse at St. Mary’s park than the season before it—their last in the Dell—they managed to keep more or less the same form as previous seasons. On the other hand, they didn’t outdo themselves, which is a key issue when thinking about Tottenham. Many fans would not be content with more of the same almost-good-enough football; we want to win trophies and finish high in the league. To do that, we need to exceed our performances from prior seasons, and even Southampton, who fared best during their transition season, were unable to accomplish that. From 1998-99 to 2000-01, their results got better each season, but in 2001-02, after the move, they plateaued or slightly regressed in each category, before improving again the following season.

Conclusions

If the goal for the team is to exceed its past performances and win a trophy or finish higher in the Premier League, Tottenham fans have reason to be wary of this season. None of the four clubs analyzed exceeded their average performances and the season immediately before they made the move.

As I outlined in the background section, we are already witnessing two possible impacts of the stadium project on Tottenham: first, the lack of summer transfer spending, and second, our declining home record last season. It doesn’t make sense to read too much into these numbers, because it’s only four teams, a tiny sample, and each was navigating their own challenges. Also, in football, things can change drastically from season to season both within a team and in the landscape of the league in general.

That being said, it does seem noteworthy to me that none of these four teams was able to do significantly better in their transition season than they did in any other season. That matters because to set our expectations appropriately for the remainder of this season, we ought to remember that a stadium transition can have far-reaching and often subtle consequences for a team. Much like moving from one house to another, moving stadiums is unsettling, inconvenient, and full of both excitement and nerves. You can’t predict what effect it will have on a team until they’ve done it.

Tottenham is in an excellent position at the moment, with a young team on the cusp of full maturity, a loyal manager aligned with the project at the club, and a chairman who has guaranteed the security of our finances. I feel hopeful about Spurs’ chances to buck the trend this season. Just not too hopeful.