26 May 2009

The Premier League and the Illusion of Competition

So, with the football season drawing to a close, and with the Premier League having wrapped up on Sunday, I got to chatting last night about the overall shape of this season. As an Everton fan, I was obviously pretty happy with it, given that we've managed fifth place in the league for a second time running, and are in the cup final, but my mates were rather surprised at how pensive I was about the whole thing.

Well, I explained, I think the Premier League is basically a rigged game. Everton may have managed fifth twice running, having been sixth the previous year, but unless Arsenal have another shocker of a year next year, or Benitez's near-achievements of this year aren't repeated next year, or Chelsea's new manager can't come up with the goods, or Manchester City buys a batch of new players and shakes things up at the top, there's not really much hope of breaking into the top four. And sad though it is, it's all about getting into the top four.

It'll be great if we win the cup, and there'll be no end of celebrating if we do, but the league's the real barometer of success, and the only competition that offers real rewards, in that the top four places grant you access to the Champions' League, and the money that the Champions' League brings pretty much guarantees dominance in the domestic game, unless things go very wrong.

To explain, simply, in 2006-7 Everton came fifth in the Premier League, with Liverpool coming fourth. Everton entered the UEFA cup, making it as far as the quarter finals, beating the eventual winners on the way there, but getting knocked out on penalties. For all their efforts they were rewarded with something in the region of half a million quid. Liverpool, on the other hand, attained a place in the Champions' League qualifiers, and, on qualifying for the Champions' League, made it all the way through to the semi-final, winning something in the region of twenty million quid through doing so.

That's what the difference between fourth and fifth place can be. Twenty million pounds. So what, you might say. Well, twenty million pounds buys you Torres, putting it bluntly. And winning the Champions' League means more than thirty million into the club kitty.

Obviously, I'm caricaturing the situation, and this probably sounds like sour grapes, but there's no denying that there's a massive gap between the top four teams and the next four teams, and despite claims that this year's Premier League has been more competitive than previously, this competition is largely an illusion. There are a few mini-competitions, but the overall trend is pretty much settled even before the season starts.

If you average out the end of season stats for the top four teams, you'll see that they've ended the season on 82.75 points each, and have a positive goal difference of 42.25. The next four teams, on the other hand, work out at 57.25 points each, and a positive goal difference of 7.25.

In other words, the Sky 4 lead the chasing pack by an average of 25.5 points and 35 goals. And this season, though worse than any in the last twenty years in this regard, is no anomaly. Look at this chart:

Both the points gap and the goal difference gap have been indisputably increasing over the past twenty years. Sure, the rate of increase is erratic, but the general trend is clear, especially over the last decade. Twenty years ago the gap stood at 13.5 points and 18 goals, and now it stands at 25.5 points and 35 goals -- it's almost doubled, and I suspect it'll have done so within another year or two.

Look at the top six teams for the last two years. The league trophy, in whatever incarnation, has been the exclusive preserve of United, Arsenal, and Chelsea since 1996. Of the chasing pack, Liverpool last won it in 1990, when the gap stood at 11.5 points and 12 goals, Everton last won it in 1987, when the gap stood at 9.75 points and a then anomalous 24.75 goals., and Villa last won it way back in 1981, when the gap was likewise 9.75 points and a mere 6.75 goals.

The Sky 4's level of dominance can't be put down to good management, especially given the profligacy of Benitez at Liverpool and the instability of Chelsea. This is clearly a matter of money -- and it's surely no coincidence that 2000-1 and 2001-2 were the seasons in which the Champions' League franchise was extended so that the third- and fourth-placed teams could enter the competition and reap the lucrative rewards so that their dominance in the domestic game could be assured.

What do they spend the money on? Well, for starters, how about the Premiership's four largest and costliest squads? Back in March, as far as I can ascertain, the average Premiership squad consisted of just 41 players. The top four squads were Chelsea's 48, United's 53, Arsenal's 61, and Liverpool's 62, averaging out at 56 players each; the following sixteen had an average squad size of just 37 players. Everton had but 33, and Bolton had a paltry 27. Is it any surprise that the Sky 4 dominate to the extent they do, especially when other sides get depleted through injuries and suspension? Despite all the whinging we hear when the top teams don't get to field their ideal first eleven, they're practically immune to injuries.

Yes, I know Sunderland have 48 players on their books, but try comparing the calibre and the cost of the Sunderland 48 with the Chelsea 48. The reality of the current situation is that coming fourth in the Premier League means you can buy Torres, and that coming third one season means that if the next season starts badly, well, you can always buy Arshavin as a Christmas present, guaranteeing that you stay fourth at the end, leading the fifth place team by three whole wins.

The reality of the Premier League is that there's a four-team competition for first place, then a competition between a handful of teams for the next two or three places, and then a mad scramble at the bottom to avoid relegation. Sure, on any given day there can be an upset and a David can beat a Goliath, but these are anomalies. They don't happen often enough to change the big picture, and the reality is that most of the Premier League are little more than cannon fodder for the Sky 4, the teams that happened to be successful at the one moment in the modern game when success on the field pretty much guaranteed that the money would keep flowing in...

It rather seems that the Champions' League is the real competition, and that the purpose of the domestic competitions is simply to see who is worthy of promotion to the Champions' League. Unfortunately, the rewards for Champions' League participation are so massive that once established in the League, it's kind of difficult to get relegated, making the whole charade spectacularly uncompetitive.

All of which begs the questions of how much longer the sixteen teams that do the heavy lifting, not to mention the Morlocks below them, will continue to put up with this situation, and what will happen if one of the Sky 4 should slip out of the top bracket, especially given their astronomical levels of debt...

Given that I doubt the likelihood of an American solution, I'm sure this is a bubble waiting to burst.

No comments: