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Why the Premier League should adopt playoffs to crown a champion

Written by on May 16, 2024

The final ascent of Manchester City’s climb to a fourth straight Premier League title began against a club that wasn’t sure it wanted to win, and will conclude against a mid-table straggler.

City beat Tottenham on Tuesday, and now stands atop the league, two points ahead of Arsenal, with one match remaining. That one match is against West Ham — a club with a departing coach, with two wins in its last 11 games, and stuck in ninth place with nothing to play for.

Arsenal, meanwhile, will watch from afar, helplessly.

And a provocative question will linger: Is this really the best way to crown a champion?

This, of course, is how English football has been crowning champions since the 1880s. The season-long, double-round-robin format is deeply ingrained. It’s the foundation on which the world’s most popular sports league has been built. It delivers weekly drama. It arrives at a meritocratic conclusion. It almost always identifies a deserving winner — the team with the most points after 38 games.

But its downsides are glaring, now more so than ever before.

Pep Guardiola is giving a team talk during the Premier League match between Fulham and Manchester City at Craven Cottage in London, on May 11, 2024. (Photo by MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

If all goes to plan for Manchester City on Sunday, for the 33rd time in 33 Premier League seasons, the leader entering the final day will lift the trophy — without having to fend off a direct competitor.

In fact, Man City will likely win the league without having beaten either of its two top challengers this season.

Its record against Arsenal and Liverpool was 0 wins, 3 draws, 1 loss.

Against the top four, the Citizens won once in six tries.

Against the top six, they won twice in 10.

Perhaps they are the best team in England, or perhaps they aren’t, but either way … shouldn’t they have to prove it head-to-head against any foe who could reasonably dispute their claim?

That, of course, is the concept behind playoffs — which, if done right, could suit this Premier League season and others quite well.

Yes, they would devalue the rest of the season. Yes, they’re an intrusive American solution to a problem that doesn’t really exist. Yes, the mere suggestion would spark traditionalist blowback. And yes, a crowded soccer calendar might not accommodate them.

But a four-team playoff could make the Premier League even more entertaining.

The concocting of any championship format is really two ideological debates packed into one.

First: Should the best team always win, or do you prefer upsets and randomness?

Second: Should you maximize the stakes of every single game, or consolidate importance into end-of-season spectacles?

Most American sports leagues skew way too far toward the end-of-season spectacles. In the NBA, college basketball and MLS, mid-season games often feel inconsequential.

Most European soccer leagues, on the other hand, skew a tad too far in the other direction. The same few clubs almost always win. And seasons often end anticlimactically.

The best formats fall toward the middle of both spectrums. For a decade, American college football struck the near-ideal balance. Every weekend mattered. A four-team playoff admitted only the true contenders. Those four clashed in front of tens of millions of viewers, with juggernauts susceptible to upsets but the champion always deserving — just as the Premier League’s top four could.

A variation on that theme is one of two reasonable options for the EPL:

  • After 38 games, the top four qualify for semifinals.

  • No. 1 plays No. 4 in a best-of-three series; No. 2 plays No. 3.

  • The No. 1 seed gets all three games at home, to reward season-long supremacy. The No. 2 seed gets two of three at home.

  • The winner of each series is based solely on results. In other words, the benchmark is two wins or a win and two draws. Aggregate goals are only a tiebreaker, in the case where each team wins once and the third game ends in a deadlock. (If aggregate is also tied, the team with more regular-season points advances.)

  • Winners meet in a best-of-three finals. If the higher seed finished 10 or more points above the lower seed, they get all three games at home; otherwise, they get two of three.

The idea here is to preserve most of the tension that accompanies every round of fixtures, from autumn to spring. By making each playoff place significantly more coveted than the one below it — via home games and tiebreakers — the top of the table would still be worth chasing.

The chase, of course, would no longer be all-or-nothing. The pressure on Man City over the past two months would’ve been less intense. The devastation Arsenal felt after losing to Aston Villa in April would’ve been mere disappointment, and the defeat nowhere near as costly. Fans would adjust accordingly, and weekly drama would, to some extent, decline.

But it wouldn’t disappear. And then it would soar, to untold levels, during the playoffs in May.

The other obvious benefit, in 2024, would be that City would actually have to beat Arsenal or Liverpool, rather than claiming a title largely based on its record against the bottom 14 teams: 25 wins (so far), 1 draw, 1 loss.

The broader benefit would be that the bottom 14 could daydream of glory. The Villas and Brightons of the world will probably never outpace all of their richer rivals over 38 games; statistically, they’d be much more likely to sneak into third or fourth, then pull off a few playoff stunners.

If the concern is that eight months of results would essentially vanish, and the newly-minted “regular season” would lose its gravity, then there’s a second option.

The most dramatic day in European football’s recent memory was June 4, 2023, in Belgium — the country with a gold-standard playoff format.

The Belgian Pro League grinds though a double round robin, just like the rest of Europe, then splits its table into thirds by May. The top six play another round robin among themselves. They continue accumulating points, but with a twist: When the season’s first stage ends, and this “championship round” begins, all point totals are halved — which effectively makes each “championship round” match worth twice as much to all participants.

A four-team version of this could work in England. If the current season ended today, City, Arsenal, Liverpool and Villa would enter the extravaganza with a table looking like this:

1. Man City — 44 points
2. Arsenal — 43 points
3. Liverpool — 39.5 points
4. Aston Villa — 34 points

They would then play six games apiece — one home and one away against each of their fellow challengers.

Villa would rightly stand no chance, because it wasn’t quite good enough August-April. The title would very likely come down to two battles at the summit between the undisputed two best teams, City and Arsenal.

The biggest hurdle, logistically, would be the already-stuffed soccer calendar. There is simply no room for six additional games.

One solution, within format No. 1, would be to cut the three-game series to one-off showdowns — but that would leave the top seed a bit too vulnerable to the sport’s randomness.

The better solution would be to scrap the League Cup — or turn it into an end-of-season consolation tournament, with the EPL’s four playoff qualifiers exempt. That would open up midweek slots in the fall and winter on everybody’s schedule.

The Premier League could also be trimmed from 20 to 18 teams, and therefore 38 to 34 games, which should probably happen anyway — though it almost surely never will.

The playoff proposals, similarly, are probably pipe dreams. But the league’s 20 owners do seem more disruptive (and American) than ever before. Perhaps, some day, they’ll consider the benefits of breaking from tradition.

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