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Chelsea’s Historically Awful Start

Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea…

It’s the defending Premier League champion, but Chelsea’s campaign this season would make Scott Walker proud. The team’s nightmarish season continued Saturday, with a 1-0 loss to mid-table football club Stoke City. Chelsea now sits 16th out of 20 in the standings, after winning the league title decisively last season. Emblematically, Chelsea played Saturday’s game without its outspoken manager, José Mourinho, who was banned from the premises following an “expletive-laden rant” at a referee last month.

There have been rumors of players’ unhappiness with Mourinho’s management style, of a locker-room revolt, and even that some players would rather lose than win a game for the manager. Others, like Chelsea captain John Terry, laid blame at the feet of the players — striker Diego Costa has struggled, for example — rather than the coaches, as well as chalking up some of the poor start to bad luck. And a few Chelsea stars — Costa, Terry, Branislav Ivanović, Cesc Fàbregas — are getting on in years, and perhaps fatigue is setting in.

Chelsea has lost seven of its 12 opening Premier League games — including the last three straight — and drawn two. That’s bad enough to make history. Since the very first English top-flight season in 1888, no defending champion has lost more than half of its opening 12 games. Ten times the defending champion has lost six out of its opening 12 — the first being Everton in 1891, the last Blackburn Rovers in 1995.1

The only rival to this year’s Chelsea team since 1888 is the 1961-62 champion Ipswich Town. Ipswich started the season after its championship with two wins, four draws and six defeats, or 10 points under the current standings system, compared to Chelsea’s 11 points this season. (Since 1981, wins have been worth three points, draws one and losses zero. Prior to this, wins were worth two, but for comparison’s sake we’ve include those seasons as if they were worth three.) Here’s a look at the seasons of all the defending champs since World War II.


Chelsea is averaging less than one point per game. Last season it averaged 2.3. This is the team’s worst start since 1978 — a season after which they were relegated.2

Of the 60 seasons that Chelsea has played in the top tier, only four have begun with a worse record than this year. In those four seasons, the team has not finished higher than 16th and has finished at the bottom twice. Twice before, Chelsea started with an identical record to this year. In 1973-74 they finished 17th, but Chelsea fans will be hoping that Mourinho’s team can recover like the 1953-54 version, which finished in eighth place. Here’s a look at all previous Chelsea top-flight seasons.


After Saturday’s game, Football Twitter was both amused and bemused:

Mercifully, Chelsea now has a bit of a break from league action. Its next game, the 13th of the 38-game season, will be on Nov. 21 against another middling side, Norwich City. Chelsea will need to make a great deal more history, and of a happier kind, to return to the top of the standings, and will have to buck its current form just to stay in the Premier League. The team is only three points above the dreaded relegation zone. It’s played in the top flight of English football every season since 1989, winning four titles in that time.


  1. The data used in this article was assembled by one of the authors, James, and is available here.

  2. The bottom three teams in the standings at the end of the season are relegated — demoted, essentially — to the second-tier Football League Championship. The top three teams from the second tier are promoted to take their place.

Oliver Roeder was a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight. He holds a Ph.D. in economics from the University of Texas at Austin, where he studied game theory and political competition.

James Curley is an assistant professor in the Psychology Department at Columbia University.