The Premier League is Not, in Fact, a League

Set in Stone
Set in Stone

Those of us round long enough to remember the Ipswichs, Blackburns and QPRs of old running rampant in the early days of the Premier League may have winced listening to Setanta’s commentators gag with delight as Dossena’s lobbed long ball made it Liverpool 4, Manchester United 1.  “This is why this is the greatest league in Europe, and quite possibly the world,” they gargled, screaming like a pair of bible thumpers who, after praying for sunshine, point to the cloudless sky and shout, “See?!”

Except Liverpool’s win, like the odd sunny day, doesn’t prove a damn thing.  Today Tottenham, who lagged behind in every meaningful stat minus the goal tally, kicked Villa out of the top four.  Of course, our friends supporting any one of the Big Four clubs will say, “It’s down to O’Neill innit?  He just didn’t buy right, he got his tactics wrong, not like our Fergie or our Wenger or our Rafa” as if the Premier League exists in a monetary vacuum where things like geographical advantage, historical popularity, immense television broadcast fees and sponsorship support don’t exist and even if they did, certainly don’t play a part on the pitch.

At the end of the day, it’s an eleven-a-side game, innit?

Perhaps if you’re Chelsea, Liverpool, Arsenal or Manchester United and playing each other.  Take Saturday for example; Sir Alex was right—United were the better team on the day, but Liverpool scored the goals.  It was probably for this very reason the Setanta crew were practically convulsing with delight—”Take that, doubters!  Our league is an awesome league because the shit club won, and the race is back on!”  Yes, a lot of topsy-turvy for the clubs near the 55 to 65 point range.

But the rest of the league is either in one massive relegation fight (ten clubs are within six points or less from the drop) or holding off faint hopes (and I use the word ‘hopes’ guardedly) for the Europa League.  Villa were the only club who even managed to get pundits to talk about breaking the Top Four, let alone the league title, for more than one news cycle.  Their loss means it’s normal service resumed, with only the unlikely possibility of a Liverpool title pip providing any narrative tension.

The Premier League is the not best the league in Europe (though the Big Four are certainly the best European clubs at the moment) because it’s not a “league.” A proper league, as the name implies, features a number of clubs who each has a chance at winning the league trophy.  The odds don’t have to be equal; there may be dominant clubs and shit clubs. But when money creates a feedback loop to the extent that we’ve seen in England, when the same top four clubs ride the crest of historical popularity, ever-increasing broadcast fees and significant geographical advantage, the idea of a “league” dissolves completely.

28 thoughts on “The Premier League is Not, in Fact, a League”

  1. With your definition, La Liga, Serie A or Bundasliga are not leagues as well. Only 5 teams fought for the title in recent decade within those leagues. For France, it was just ONE team league for the last SEVEN years. Same goes to Saudi Arabia, Japan and Korea as well. I think if you want a proper League by your definition, you should find one in Laos or Cambodia. Cheers!

  2. Yes, there are annual league leaders in Serie A or the Bundesliga or La Liga as there have been in European leagues for decades. But look at the Champions League qualifiers in each league—there has been significantly more variation than in past decade than in the Premier League.

    Or have a look at the points gap between league leaders and the rest of the league…in particular, look at France on that end. Compare it to England.

  3. “Sir Alex was right—United were the better team on the day, but Liverpool scored the goals”

    Only two people on earth actually believe your rediculous statement. I know it must have hurt you badly, a thrashing in such a fashion, completely useless to anything Liverpool came at you with, but wake up mate. Credit where credit’s due, Liverpool destroyed a happless United. I love hearing a United fan so wound up and bitter. What’s the matter? Get a glimps into the future? I know i did mate.

  4. so what is a league then? do the teams in spain and italy make up leagues? because a milan team or juventus always are the ones with the only shot at winning it in italy, in spain its real madrid and barcelona, so please….when you learn more about football, then you can share your opinion. they let anyone write on the internet these days. if only koko the monkey could type…

  5. I agree that Banyard and Dowie were over the top with their Sky-Sports-hype-machine regarding the Premier League. Unfortunately it seems that whenever there’s a big clash involving the top four, the commentators go way over the top. Dowie is rubbish.

    The Gaffer

  6. in fact england has had more parity when you consider the different number of teams that have one first division titles, than italy and spain have had. you cant simply use the premier league because it hasnt been around as long as the other leagues, you need to include it with the first division and then you could see why everyone is so against you richard.

  7. and as for the middle and bottom clubs, it benefits them whenthe points b/w arsenal, manure, chelski, and liverpool are tighter because it means that every match in which the top four plays in is meanigful, which drives up ticket sales for the other clubs that play the top four, as well the players from those teams are play harder to beat the top four, with liverpool winning against manure, it means a team that hasnt won the league for 20 years has a chance to win. when in spain and italy there are only 2 teams that have a chance to win, in england there are 4 teams. think about that.

  8. I agree with the poster ‘useless’ above, I used to respect this site but articles like this are seriously making me re-consider!

    “Sir Alex was right—United were the better team on the day” – I think you must be the only person who beleives this, cos I’m sure Sir Alex doesnt! He was probably only saying that to keep his players morale up. I can point you to at least 5 die-hard Utd fans that I know, and all of them will admit Utd were completely outplayed.

    “Take that, doubters! Our league is an awesome league because the shit club won, and the race is back on!: – Yes liverpool are a ‘shit club’, who put 4 past madrid and utd in the same week. You are an idiot. You must be so bitter.

    I agree with the money point that it makes it harder for the smaller clubs to compete..but look at man city & can have all the money in the world and buy the best players but doesnt mean you will win. It is 11v 11. Look at Hull? And ‘significant geographical advantage’ ??? WHAT!?? haha you must be joking, are you implying that where a club is based gives them an advantage?? I bet if manchester moved to iceland they would still be a great team. Idiot.

    The arguement about the other leagues is stupid. France has Lyon, Spain has 2 teams that dominate (barca & madrid), and Italy maybe 3. And you say england is not a league?

    Now I know why EPL Talk r hiring. You must be desperate, putting out absolute BS like this!??

  9. Start a European Super League involving all the big teams of all of the different Leagues in Europe.

    Then you will see parity where there will be champions year in and year out instead of the same 3 to 4 teams every year winning the leagues

  10. Good piece. The opposite of this is the Mexican League, the world’s most competitive and a league ranked in the top 10 by IFFHS.

    If you want competition that’s the league to check out!

  11. I see the sentiment though ‘innit’ just makes you sound superior.

    You have basically rehashed what the Guardian football weely extra podcast discussed last week. The same 4 teams have qualified for the CL since 2002.
    But dont forget Everton also got in and there is no way Villa (or indeed Everton) are out of it yet for this year. Everton are in great form and Arsenal have a terrible run in.

    You ask for France? Well havent Lyon won 7 straight titles there? Is that exciting? They also score far less goals per game than England and Serie A.
    They might have slightly more variety on who qualifies for the CL but with Lyon winning every year and the fact they have less teams to go in to the CL it cant be that much more varied.

    Italy only had variance recently as Juve were relegated. Its generally Milan/Inter/Juve plus one who has recently been Roma.

    I dont deny there are 4 stronger teams in the Prem than the rest but thats the reality of modern sport, money wins. I would sympathise more but then you have Bolton last year and Villa and Spurs this who get into European competitions and get quite far before putting out B sides to concentrate on 3 Premiership points. IN Bolton and Villa’s case it backfired. Spurs did it and lost the Carling Cup on penalties. Ridiculous.

    At least in England there are 4 teams that can currently win the league in any season. Spain has 2, Italy has 3, Scotland 2, France maybe 2.
    its why there is a Champions League, thats your parity competition but even that is very England favoured the last few years though I dont believe it will last.

  12. Great post. And spot on as well. I’ve thought a lot about this Top-4 monopoly dilemma and I can see only a few ways out. 1) Eliminate relegation and create a “minor league” a-la Major League Baseball with the Coca-Cola and Blue Square leagues – this would allow the teams in the EPL to build year in, year out without fear of getting hammered by loss of revenue with relegation. It would also allow EPL teams to form permanent relationships with the new “minor league” to “raise” young players with their farm teams. Delimma: who gets to choose who is in the permanent EPL? 2) Create a playoff system for the 3rd and 4th CL places (maybe even just between 3rd, 4th, 5th and 6th place finishers?). This would introduce an element of uncertainty into the EPL and players looking to play in the CL might think twice about leaving their team if their current team had a better chance of making it to the CL, reducing the amount of poaching and “betrayals” 3) Winning the CC or FA Cup means getting into the CL and not finishing 3rd or 4th (see point 2). You want teams to take cup competitions seriously? Sweeten the pot and you’ll see “full strength” teams play in each round. 4) Equalize the distribution of money across the teams. Without fear of relegation, this would even the field for purchases etc. and mean more equality between the teams. Smart player purchases and strategy would reign supreme. There’s a reason any NFL team could win the super bowl each year: salary caps and revenue sharing. Also, as with most American sports leagues, the last place teams get first choice draft picks. I know the EPL doesn’t have a draft, but giving the most spoils to the victor almost ensures a monopoly at the top. I’m not holding my breath that any of this will happen…

  13. So, let’s see, just this year, we haven’t seen Middlesbrough defeat the great Liverpool 2-0 and Everton knocking them out of the FA Cup as well or Arsenal go on a five game streak of drawing everyone and their uncle as well. Likewise, MUFC have been dominant but they did have to edge Blackburn and some others who put up spirited efforts. Chelsea has been sleeping for half the season.

    I just think, there are pros and cons to the argument you put forth.

  14. If anyone is questioning the dominance of other teams in other leagues, google search Champions League in the news. One of the big newspapers and I’m sorry I don’t have the link shows at least the Bundesliga and Spanish league have been sharing the honours. The fact that the same 4 go to the Champions League belies an advantage that stability affords them to get a better shot at it and I think that is correct.

    Still, I see the EPL definitely as a league. You obviously do have perenial top teams in the other leagues, maybe just not the same fixed number as the EPL. We know Real and Barca are always good as is Munich, Milan and Juventus.

  15. I despise the idea of having no relegation. One of the great things about the 4 divisions is the relegation ‘race’. Also having a closed shop gives no incentive to teams below as they will never have a chance of competing for the big cash.
    MLS as a league is bad right now and could benefit from relegation, having a long season and then finding 8 of 14 teams qualify for a cup tourny is a bad system. I would not want to see any league modelled on this.

    Also has parity been good for the league? Take the NFL, San Francisco were the ‘team of the 80’s’ and you knew if you beat them you had beaten the very best, same for Dallas in the early 90’s. Now you are beating the Patriots but they are nowhere near as good as championship teams in years gone by because of parity. The Patriots have done well to even have a Dynasty in the climate but I cant help feeling that the NFL was better before such parity kicked in.

    The problem is you cant apply those rules to England and not Europe because England would get demolished in the Champions League unless these ‘reforms’ were universally applied to European football.

    I do like the 6 plus 5 idea though, although I’d rather see a 4 plus 7 or a 5 plus 6. Still the concept is mutually beneficial to club and international football I feel.

  16. Holland destroyed Italy in the Euro Cup: yet, we aren’t talking about the Eredevise and the Dutch aren’t being crybabies about foreigners Italy has had to allow them to win the Champions Leagues, Marco Van Basten, George Weah and Kaka.

    And don’t bring up 6+5: Fifa and Uefa’s shit is nothing to brag about the way some teams have won the world cup. You have a financially sucessful league in the PL and nothing is going to change it, it being the birthplace of modern football, meaning the whole of the islands if anyone disagrees.

    Excuse me, last year’s Champions League final had Lampard, Ashley Cole, Joe Cole, Wayne Rooney, Brown, Rio Ferdinand, Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs?? Not enough Brits? And there may be more.

    WTF does the 6 +5 rule have to do with it? So we can see a team that dives or handballs or feigns injury be called the best in the world?? FIfa is the God of Football?

    Simon Burke doesn’t know a hole in the ground

  17. Hi Lads,

    I agress totally, its not a league. More like the like the first trimester of the of a pan European Superlague. With the top four dominance being a menacing reaccurance, I for one have looked elsewhere for the time being. Just before I start, to Jones in an earlier post this isn’t a glimpse into the future of United loosing. Ferguson has to much exprience and has seen it all. As Winston Cchurchill once said,”if your going through hell, keep going”.

    Now where was I, oh yes. I have looked at another league for the time being, the J-league in Japan. Your probably thinking with a league half a world a way why would you care. Well if you ever watched a J-League match, you get hypnotized immediately. The smooth fluidity of play from a tacitcal build up to a long ball down the flanks its no woner this league is the top in Asia. We seem to westernize football all the time with our “know it all” bravado. Like my grandmother use to say if you meet anyone who says they know everyhting “stay away”.

    Not staying with the J-league, just look at the table of champions. Unlike the “Big four syndrome” since its inception in 1992-1993, the title has changed between six teams( this not including the split season era): Kashima Antlers, Urawa Red Diamonds, Yokokhama F. Marinos, Torkyo Verde and Gamba Osaka. Even with Kashima and Urawa being the most dominant, the race is always close with a few points sperating the pack to the tile race. Just this past week Kashima beat rivals Urawa who suffered their first opening day defeat in quite some time, while the minnows and new comers Montedio Yamagata beat Jubilo in a 2-6 thrasing. Sanfrecce Hiroshima, fresh from divison two,also beat veteran J-league’rs Yokohama F. Marinos. It goes to show the transperancy of play this league has, not to mentions it’s football plans for the future.

    The J-League as most in the know, would know, has a 100 year plan. This constitutes the business model, attendance, stadiums, and tv rights to help build the league up. Now all the revenue as I understand is shared equally between the teams. Unlike in the Premier League where the rich get richer and the poorer get poorer. Revenue is laso helped to promote youth football schools, community building, and partnerships with European counterparts i.e. Bayern Munich and Urawa. The J-League wants to grow all its teams and make sure everyone get a fare handshake. And this is where it really bothers some. Why do the same teams who arent in the top four, seem content to paly second fiddle? In the J-league I always see fighting, changing up of tactics, passion and wanting to go forward, but not in the Premier League. Its all about money, money, money, and not football. After all if each year the same teams will win, its gonna become predictable (which it already is, unfortunately). Thats my viewpoint. I always approach things with an open mind, and if you have an open mind and are willing to wake up early on the east coast to watch a game on the other side of the world, check out the J-League. You won’t be dissapointed. We all might learn something from the top league in Asia. Its time to stop being arrogant with “the best league in the world” attitude and say “hey, those guys over there are doing something right, maybe we should pay attention?”.


  18. Hmm hadnt meant to open the 6 plus 5 debate in quite that manner and its probably best for another blog post.
    In short though I brought it up as an alternative to helping with parity in a way which allows relegation to continue.

    I have nothing against foreigners in the league and think the Premier League is the better for it but I do think its been the better for the Bergkamp’s and Torres’ rather than the N’Gog’s and Nelson Viva’s that have come through. I would say some players have gotten into the Prem only because they are cheap to purchase and not because they add any quality to the league.

    I also think its important long term for English players to be given opportunities, sometimes class needs help to rise to the top and if a team
    wants to play a cheap import who adds little rather than try out a young untested Englishman for a few games, thats a detriment to the league.

    There were certainly several English players on show last year in the final (I am not counting Giggs as its unclear how a 6 plus 5 would apply to the Welsh) but in 5 years those players are past it with the exception of Rooney and maybe Brown. Young English talent is decreasing and I would say partly due to opportunity.

    My hope is the 6 plus 5 (which I’d prefer to be a 5 plus 6) will make teams concentrate on youth development and buy only truly decent internationals.
    English crowds (lets remember the PL is based there, no matter where we may all watch it from) will always get behind English players and thats a good thing for the game in England.

    I like to see Arsenal do well and I like to see England do well and if Wenger is to be believed Arsenal is doing a lot to ensure this for the years ahead, and all on that tight budget. Arsenal can certainly be accused of not doing this in recent years but then you cant coach players overnight.

  19. When the relegation battle is sometimes more interesting than the race for the premiership then something is a little wrong. Pay check football can make for a one-sided afair… Australia’s a-league is a salary capped competition, where better organised & managed teams rise to the top rather than just the richest… it has been exciting for its four years it has been around!

  20. “A proper league, as the name implies, features a number of clubs who each has a chance at winning the league trophy.”

    Definition of League – ‘Sports’ An association of teams or clubs that compete chiefly among themselves. Also called loop

    and all teams do have an chance of winning the league. they all start the season on 0 points and have 38 games in which to play well, win games and eventually win the title. Just because there are 4 teams in the league who are recognised as ‘better’ doesn’t make it not a league.
    Just look back not even 10 years ago when teams like Leeds and Newcastle were regularly in the title battle and now-a-days its teams like Villa and Everton that have that chance and even Chelsea – i suppose you could put that down to money, but it doesn’t all come down to money just look at Man City.
    It is a league, no matter what you say and if teams play well (look at what happened with Hull at the start of the season) they’ll do well in it. It is one of the most, if not the most entertaining leagues in the world because looking at it there’s still 3 teams who can realistically win the title. Currently in La Liga there’s only 2 and in Serie A it looks like its down to 1. conversely theres up to (if not more) 8 sides fighting relegation in the Premier League whereas La Liga and Serie A have 5 or 6 at best…with more on the line there’s more to fight for meaning more exciting football, how can you deny that the Premier League is not a league.

  21. It is a rarity that I ever comment on posts I see on blogs but after reading this article you have forced me out out of my writing slumber. I actually like this site, regularly read it and enjoy the topics raised. This is why I begun to question halfway through the article what was actually being written. Usually the points you make are rather informative and are backed up with structured arguments. However, on this ocassion I am…actually, I’m not going to say that, but I will say I just feel sorry for you that these are your thoughts. How you could ever come up with what I have just wasted those few minutes of my life on (that I will never get back!) I will never know. Your argument surrounding the Premier League’s status is ridiculous, full of contradictions and inaccuracies. You will need to try harder next time (judging by other peoples comments too) to convince people of your negative views. I hope that your next post will address this matter further because you have momentarily lost my interest in reading any more of your posts. I hope to hear from you soon…

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