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A 30 point mark in the CSL?

The 40 point mark is a common cliché in English football. Get 40 points and you’re safe from relegation. Is the CSL equivalent 30 points?

All stories about relegation threatened clubs in the English Premier League refer to the “40 point mark”. The theory being that once a club has achieved this magical number it cannot be relegated. Whilst there are some doubts over its continuing relevance, the 40 point mark is still a useful yardstick. With the current CSL relegation scrap involving four clubs, is there an equivalent of the 40 point mark that they should aim for?

Looking at past league tables can help with this. China has had a fully professional football league since 1994. However, the CSL has only been a 16 team two up/two down league since 2008. This cuts the sample size down, but the 40 point mark was developed when the 20 team Premier League was similarly young.

The ugly phenomenon of match fixing also needs to be mentioned here. There are both proved and alleged instances of this which have influenced where teams finished in the league table. However, this article is about how many points have been gained, not how they’ve been gained. Teams may have fixed matches to stay up, but they had to fix enough matches. The total number of points teams achieved is all we’re interested in here.

Chinese complications

In theory then, there should be 10 years of CSL league tables for us to work with. In practice, and almost inevitably when talking about Chinese football, there are further complications.

The first is because of a late season CSL game in 2008 between Wuhan Guanggu and Beijing Guoan. Wuhan Guanggu defender Li Weifeng was banned for 8 games after an on-pitch clash with Beijing’s Lu Jiang. Angry about what they perceived as a harsh penalty to a key player as they battled to avoid relegation, Wuhan protested to the CFA and eventually withdrew from the league. The CFA banned them so Wuhan had all their results replaced with 3-0 losses. Unfortunately for us, this means the final 2008 table isn’t a true reflection of how many points would be needed to stay up in a ‘normal’ season.

The following year, the bottom two sides actually stayed up. Punishments for match-fixing in previous seasons were handed down after the 2009 CSL had finished so Hangzhou and Chongqing Lifan were saved. Instead, Chengdu Blades and Guangzhou Pharmaceutical – forerunner to the Evergrande Taobao of today – were relegated. However, because this happened after the season finished, the 2009 table still reflects how many points would’ve been needed to stay up if the match fixing scandal hadn’t been revealed.

Finally, Dalian Shide disbanded after the 2012 season despite finishing 14th, so 15th placed Shanghai Shenxin stayed up. Whilst there were rumours about their demise during the season, Shide did play all their games and finished outside the relegation places. It therefore seems safe to include the league table from the 2012 season in the search for a 40 point mark equivalent.

A 40 point mark equivalent in the CSL?

Using league tables from the 2009 to 2017 CSL seasons – including or excluding the Dalian Shide 2012 season doesn’t change the overall pattern – lets us see if there is an equivalent to the 40 point mark in the CSL.

Over this period, a team who scored 33 points each season would never have been relegated. Indeed, in some years getting 33 points would’ve kept you relatively far from the relegation scrap; it would’ve been good enough for 11th in both 2010 and 2011.

So, does the CSL have a 33 point mark? Not exactly. EPL teams have been relegated with more than 40 points so the EPL’s 40 point mark is not a cast iron guarantee of staying up. Our CSL equivalent shouldn’t be either. We’ll have to look a little closer.

Digging deeper

During the seasons we’re interested in, only once has a side with less than 30 points stayed up; Nanchang Hengyuan, now Shanghai Shenxin, stayed up with 29 points in 2011. Conversely, only two sides with over 30 points have ever been relegated: Qingdao Jonoon with 31 points in 2013; and Hangzhou with 32 points in 2016. This should really be three sides though as Hangzhou finished 15th with 32 points in 2009 but stayed up because of the match fixing punishments handed out to Chengdu and Guangzhou. A good benchmark but not infallible, does the CSL have a 30 point mark?

There is another way to test this. To stay up you don’t necessarily need to get the same amount of points as the 14th placed team, you just need to get one more point than the team in 15th. For example, Yanbian were relegated with 22 points last season and Henan stayed up with 30 points. If Henan’s sole aim was staying up, they could’ve done it with 23 points. They could even have finished level on points and stayed up on the CSL’s unusual tie-breaker method – as Qingdao Jonoon did in 2010 – but that’s an unnecessary complication when trying to find a rough benchmark.

Since 2009, the ‘15th place plus one point’ number has varied from a low of 23 last season up to 33 points. Last season was an outlier though, and the minimum number of points to stay up has usually been around 30 or 31. The exact number varies from season to season as the relative strengths of the CSL sides change. Looking across the last nine seasons, the median minimum number of points to stay up is 31.

How does this help us?

Basing your survival strategy on CSL history would tell you that your club needs 33 points to be sure of staying up. Taking a little more risk, and also accepting that for some reason a “30 point mark” just sounds better than a “31 point mark”, the CSL’s magic number is 30.

With 30 points as the notional safety line, how many points do 2018’s bottom teams need from their remaining nine games? Dalian need an achievable seven points, Henan a harder 11 points, whilst struggling Chongqing need an unlikely 13 points. Guizhou are on course to record one of the lowest points totals in CSL history and would need an implausible 18 points, equivalent to six wins in their final nine games, to hit the 30 point mark.

So, maybe not anything we didn’t know already. The “30 point mark” does set a fixed target for Henan and Chongqing to aim for though, rather than a moving target of just getting one point more than the other team. If and when they get 30 points it also gives Dalian fans a reason to feel relieved.

The 30 point mark is probably most useful for teams at the start of next season in setting targets. The first time you hear a player or a manager mention it in a press conference remember that you read it on WEF first.

Donald began following Guangzhou R&F having moved to China in the same year that R&F moved to Guangzhou. The club's first foreign season ticket holder, Donald was able to watch three seasons at Yuexiushan before returning to the UK.

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