The Pointless Premier League

Of all of the World’s sporting leagues, the English Premier League, established in 1992, is perhaps the most difficult to comprehend from a statistical perspective.

Since the inception of the League, only 4 clubs have won the title – of the 18 seasons, Manchester United have won 11, Arsenal and Chelsea have won three each, and Blackburn have their one fairytale trophy from 1995.

Only once in the past 10 seasons has a team other than the “Big Four” of Manchester United, Arsenal, Chelsea and Liverpool finished in the top 3: back in 2002-2003, Newcastle finished third, just ahead of both Chelsea and Liverpool.

Perhaps the most ridiculous statistical information is found on the All-time Premier League table. On average, Manchester United score 83 points per season, with Arsenal (72.8), Chelsea (70.4) and Liverpool (68) all in the top four. The fifth best team during that period, Leeds United, have averaged 57.66 points. Let’s try to put this in some perspective. Approximately 27% of EPL games end in draws, meaning that an average team should win 14, draw 10, and lose 14 for a season, resulting in 52 points.

In percentage terms, of their games that end in a win or a draw, Liverpool win 67.2% of their matches, making them fourth all-time. Manchester United are first on a ridiculous 81.8%, while Leeds in fifth (in a league that contains 20 teams) are back on 55.4%.

Only 9 of the 44 teams who have played in the Premier League have a positive Goal Difference throughout their time in the League. And what a difference it is for the top four in Manchester United (784), Arsenal (574), Chelsea (486), and Liverpool (461). The other clubs are Newcastle (107), Aston Villa (77), Leeds (68), Blackburn (63) and Spurs (18).

The numbers just continue to confound: Spurs have scored 951 goals during their 18 seasons in the top flight, enough to place them fifth all-time, but almost 200 fewer than Liverpool’s 1130, and they’re in fourth.

There are six clubs who have played in at least two fewer EPL seasons than the Big Four who have given up more goals than each of the Big Four clubs. In fact, Southampton and Manchester City have played 13 EPL seasons, but have given up more goals than any of the Big Four, all of whom have played 18 seasons. Bolton have given up 612 goals in their 11 seasons in the League. Manchester United have given up 590 in 18 seasons. In the same time, Man U have scored 897 more goals than Bolton have scored.

Of course, all of these numbers are related to money in a Salary Cap-less environment. The revenue of Manchester United – €327 million – is way ahead of Arsenal (€263), Chelsea (€242.3) and Liverpool (€217), but all four clubs dwarf the revenue of all of their competitors, with only three other English clubs cracking the €100 million mark last year.

In 2009, it was reported that Chelsea spent €149 million Euros on wages, more than any other club. Manchester United spent €121, and Arsenal spent €101. Incredibly, this meant that Manchester United and Arsenal were two of the bottom three EPL teams in terms of the percentage of their turnover spent on wages, with Man U at 47% and Arsenal at 45%. Poor old Bolton have to spend 67% of their turnover on wages, but even they didn’t spend as much as half of the teams who spent over 70% of their turnover on wages, including a couple who were over 89%.

So the question beckons:

If you’re a fan of any of the teams playing this week who aren’t the Big Four, and who aren’t recently promoted to the EPL, how do you maintain interest in your team and the League?

Surely, you don’t believe that your team has any real chance of winning the Premiership this season, or any season in the forseeable future. And any impressive, young, talented player who looks destined to become good enough to earn a top salary isn’t going to stay in your team for long either – for not only can they earn more money elsewhere, but they also can’t expect to have any chance of Premiership glory if they’re not at one of the four biggest teams in the country.

So why do they keep coming back? Do fans of such EPL teams dream of glory days in which they might manage to climb the ranks and finish…fifth? Are Newcastle fans destined to spend the remainder of their days reminiscing about the incredible 2003 team that carried them all the way…to third?

This year, there may be another fairytale. Sportsbet have Manchester City on the fourth line of betting at $7 to win the Premiership, behind Chelsea at $2.50, Manchester United at $3.25, and just in front of Arsenal at $7 and Liverpool at $10. Other than Tottenham, no other team is under $100.

All of which forces one to wonder: when Aston Villa (8th favourite, but at $201 to win the League) played West Ham (13th, at $751) in their opening game of the 2010-2011 English Premier League season this past weekend, why did anyone care?

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3 Responses to The Pointless Premier League

  1. Scott says:

    For as long as this 67-year-old can remember, it has been Arsenal that has been at the centre of my attention when following the British soccer…and when I had the chance to see them at home in 1974, I felt I was blessed.

    In that year my (incomplete) family and I lived in Purley, south of Croydon. This meant that we were not far from Selhurst Park, home of Crystal Palace FC. Needless to say, I watched some matches when I was not at Arsenal. We also had a Croydon newspaper that was full of Palace news. Palace became my second team.

    Last season, for the first time, I spent more time reading about Crystal Palace than the Gunners, and I am sure that is because they were in a REAL competition! And was I glad that despite their financial difficulties they clung onto their Championship place! I don’t know how the fans of the lesser Premier League clubs keep going to matches!

  2. Carty says:

    E.P.O

    You just don’t get it. You have missed the point.

    The sport of football defines sports fanaticism. Particulary in Europe, although South America is also up there. Football takes on almost a religious resonance.

    The issue here is that you, EPO, are not a part of this fanatical club. You can’t understand, which is the point of your article of course, just why football – and particularly the EPL – are so enormous.

    I do not count myself as a true football fanatic. I have not lived in Europe or South America. I cannot recite hundreds of years worth of meaningless football statistics. I do not reminice about when the team I support (Man City – and yes, I did follow them during the lean years prior to the big shiek money appeared) upset Man U / Arsenal / Liverpool in 19XX.

    However, I did take the month off work during the world cup and watched EVERY game (not all of them live mind you). I do actively follow the EPL and keep an interested eye on Serie A and La League. I am engaged and fascinated.

    The traditional measure of the strength of a competition is EVENESS – what is the difference between first and last, what factors are in place to level the competition, is there a reasonable spread of champions etc etc etc.

    But this is not a typical competition – in fact football is not a typical sport.

    Due to the nature of football, I believe that there is greater potential for upsets on a game by game basis. This observation is based upon the fact that the scoring is so low. Team A (outsider) jags a goal from a set piece in the first 20 minutes of a game against the run of play, all of a sudden you have a game within a game. Team A needs to decide how best to protect that lead (which may depend on whether they are home or away) – do they try and get a second goal which should put the game to bed? Do they sit back and encourage an assault from the opposition and try and hold out? Do they play on the counter attack? Do they try and boss possession and force their opponents to take risks and perhaps create another opportunity? Do they change their formation? Do they change their personnel (ie substitute)? A game within a game …

    Even if the favoured team scores the first goal, a draw is a more than acceptable result for an underdog in football. So the game stays live and it only takes one moment of madness to bring it back to level. Which then creates another game within the game … (underdogs hanging on the draw, favourites going all out for the win [which may create a counter-attack opportunity or two for the underdog!])

    So fundamentally I believe that the game of football is open to more upsets than perhaps others. I know I’m being overly simplistic here (am boarding a flight in 15 minutes) but hopefully you get my drift EPO.

    Now, onto the structure of the EPL.

    Along a similar theme of game within a game, the EPL has competitions within the competition.

    First, there is the most important title which is that of league champion. That is the team that finishes the comeptition with the most league points on the table. It involves no exciting finals series (which was foreign to me) but instead creates a season-long race to the finish line. It means that every game, every result is critical. A draw against a lesser fancied opponent in August could end up costing you big time in April. I like it.

    Second, there are a series of “Cups” which serve the purpose of creating opportunities for lesser status (and budget) teams to win some silverware – as well as make a financial killing on gate receipts and broadcast money. These are knock-out comps which typically see some of the bigger clubs play some of their lesser-lights (as they need to rest the big guns across a VERY long and involved season) which provides a greater chance of upsets. I like it.

    Third, there is the race for Europe (part 1). The top four teams qualify for the Europa Cup. This means big $ and more importantly for many of these teams (and their respective leagues) bragging rights about who is the fairest of them all. Massive tournament, much better quality football than the World Cup. I like it.

    Fourth, there is the race for Europe (part 2). The next three (5-7) qualify for the Europa League. This means little $ and some bragging rights, but for many of these teams it is a chance to expand their brand and is still of a high level of interest to football fans. This competition is expansive and enables a lot of the more boutique clubs to experience international competition. I like it.

    Finally, there is promotion/relegation. Every season, the bottom 3 teams get relegated to the Championship and the best 3 teams from the Championship get promoted. This season Blackpool – a team that only just snuck into the Championship play-offs – won promotion. This is a team that has a ground that holds a total of 12,000 people. This is a Club that was only a couple of seasons ago playing in front of 3,000-4,000 people regularly. Ten years ago, Blackpool was a pub football team. They are now a part of the biggest competition (across any sport) in the world. And they won their first game in the EPL 4-0. Wow. The financial incentives for a Club that earns the right to be in the EPL are massive. To put it in perspective, teams that get relegated are “compensated” the sum of $35m pounds as a parachute payment (so that the Club does not crash down to earth after being demoted). That is the payment for the teams who don’t stay in the EPL. Scary, but I like it.

    Thsi competition, in fact this sport, is counter-intuitive. Low scoring, regular draws, over-paid and over-hyped players (and managers) … the list goes on. But one you dig deeper there is a unique richness to all of this – some romance. Yes it is about money, but what big league isn’t? Yes it is lop-sided and elitist, but there is an element of that everywhere. Yes the rich get richer and the poor get less richer, but that adds to the flavour.

    What other code provides a pub team, if they are good enough, to compete against Manchester United at Wembley if they are good enough. None. Zero.

    So I reckon you need to give the EPL another season, learn more about it, absorb yourself in it, and then write a Part 2 to this column in 12 months time.

    Keep up the good work EPO – I enjoy reading your stuff …

  3. edwardpolsen says:

    Ahh, Carty – how I love your response, an am enjoying the opportunity to respond in kind…

    First, let’s take a look at your initial point, best summarised by your quote “So fundamentally I believe that the game of football is open to more upsets than perhaps others.” You weren’t, as you suggested, being overly simplistic – it’s been statistically proven that you’re correct. Indeed, I think you’ll find the research undertaken by folk from the Department of Physics at Boston University fascinating – check it out here: http://physics.bu.edu/~redner/pubs/pdf/sports.pdf .

    Of most interest is Figure 2(b) on page 2, which looks at the cumulative frequency of upsets in the EPL (and the FA before it) as against the four major US sports. You’ll see that it backs up your suspicion – there are absolutely more upsets in soccer than there are in the other sports. But the most interesting thing about it is that over the last 40 years, the number of upsets in English soccer has been slowly and consistently decreasing. Would love you to do all of the stats for the AFL next time you have a spare month or two, to see how it compares to them all!

    Now, onto the structure of the EPL:

    “There are a series of “Cups” which serve the purpose of creating opportunities for lesser status (and budget) teams to win some silverware.”

    Ahh, I’m so very glad that you brought this up! I too love the nature of the cups – and let’s use the one everyone cares about in the FA Cup as our example. Yep, I love the way that non-league teams can suddenly find themselves hosting Manchester United in a tiny stadium and give them a real shake. So much of this, as a seeded knockout competition, reminds me of the various fascinating stages that a Grand Slam tennis tournament goes through…where while Federer or Nadal would be shattered if they lost to someone early, for another guy it’s the biggest thrill in the universe to manage to get through qualifying and be drubbed on Centre Court in the First Round. So yeah, I can absolutely see the romance in it as a competition.

    That being said, I think you’re seriously overstating it when you say that the cups “serve the purpose of creating opportunities for lesser status teams to win some silverware.” Take a look back at the history of the FA Cup final, and you’ll see close to the same paucity of victors as you have seen in the Premier League over the past 18 years. In that time, only twice has a team other than the Big Four won the FA Cup – Everton in 1994-95, and Portsmouth in 2007-08. Otherwise, it’s been Man U, Arsenal, Chelsea and Liverpool the whole way. That’s 6 winners in 18 years, with 16 of those shared amongst 4 teams. Yet before the EPL came along, the 1980’s alone had 6 different winners of the Cup, and the 1970’s had 8! As you said, the richer keep getting richer. So much so that even in a knockout competition in this most upset-filled sport, teams outside of the Big Four are becoming less and less likely to win some silverware.

    And the races for Europe are, indeed, what I was wondering about in my original piece. Unlike their predecessors who were following such clubs prior to the EPL’s inception, do fans of the Aston Villas and West Hams of this world just spend each season hoping that their team’s good enough to qualify for a second-tier Europoean competition?

    You’re right: I don’t get it. I don’t get why fans keep going back week after week, year after year, when they can’t reasonably believe that their team will ever win the league, let alone the Champions League. But perhaps you’re right – perhaps those people really do see success in a second-tier European competition as being well worth their unbridled devotion and fanaticism. Perhaps it’s all about the fact that they love being able to regard themselves as supporters of perpetual underdogs. And perhaps they’re just like those guys who are never ranked higher than 50th in the world, but who forever live off their career highlight: that one year when they reached the 4th Round at Wimbledon.

    Fascinating stuff,

    EPO

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