Through the bleary-eyed nostalgia and giddy haze of Leicester City’s 2016 title triumph, it’s easy to overlook a rather less romantic consideration; what that moment has to tell us about the changing trends in Premier League points distributions.
Enough time has probably now elapsed that one can pick over the finer details of sport’s greatest fairytale without being accused of overt cynicism. Here are some stats with which to stabilise the mood:
In only two seasons since the turn of the century would Leicester’s total of 81 points have been enough to win them the league; in 2013/14, 81 points would have only been good enough for fourth place; only twice in the last 20 years has a team finished second with as few as 71 points as Arsenal did in 2016; and, perhaps most startlingly, Leicester’s haul of 18 points accrued by the time they walked off against Palace in October 2015 is the same number that seventh-place Watford had amassed by the same stage this season.
Once we reach a clearing inside of this forest of numbers, we see that the competition has become empirically tougher in the last two decades of the Premier League, with the current season shaping up to represent a spike in that trend. Leicester’s success occurred in a rare power vacuum, the kind that the stats suggest occurs no more than once every ten years. All trends tell us that the hunt has got harder as the league has grown richer.
Manchester United’s treble winners went toe-to-toe with Arsenal for the title of 1999, yet the two sides finished on 79 and 78 points respectively. That season, Arsenal had picked up only six wins by December 13th, yet still took the title race to the final day. The previous year, they won it, despite still only managing half a dozen victories by mid-December. They say you can’t win the title in the first half of the season, but you can lose it. Today, that Arsenal side wouldn’t have survived in the title hunt much beyond the autumn.
It’s a suitable moment in football history to make a comparison with. It was in 1998 that talk of a European Super League last came seriously onto the table, with Europe’s elite clubs being wooed by the Italian media mogul Rodolfo Hecht of the now defunct Media Partners.
Then, UEFA chiefs quickly shut down the prospect of a breakaway, claiming it was counter to the spirit of competition. Their compromise was a reorganising of the existing European competitions, with more Champions League places going to the continent’s strongest leagues. Concessions to the elite have continued, with Europe’s leading four national leagues now more secure than ever in their grip on that competition. Yet the lust for growth and change has led those clubs back to the negotiating table, to draw up for a new competition with which to ring-fence their share of football income.
Last week, Arsenal became the latest Premier League side to pay lip service to their commitment to the domestic league whilst turning an ear to the lucrative whispers whipping up around the plans for a breakaway competition. For a club that is approaching 15 years without a league title, the prospect of joining a new European Super League will likely fan the flames of those who have long considered the club more of a business enterprise than a sporting one.
For a contextual analysis of how unforgiving the competition has been at the top of the Premier League so far this season, consider that Arsenal’s haul of 24 points from 12 games is the same as Barcelona’s over in Spain; Barca sit top of La Liga, whilst Arsenal are eight points off leaders Man City in fifth. Their respective records of seven wins and two defeats are identical, yet the Gunners are seen as little better than rank outsiders for a title tilt, whilst Barca are odds on to retain their crown.
In La Liga, distribution of TV rights income has gone in the reverse direction to that of the Premier League. Since 2014-15, when the Spanish model which saw clubs negotiate deals with broadcasters individually was ripped up and redrawn, the spread of income has come to resemble something more like the traditional English model, with deals negotiated by the league and money distributed according to performance.
In the Premier League, clubs are themselves now three years down the line from the new contracts that were signed in 2015 that raised the division’s collective income to over £5 billion ($6.4b) over three seasons. The effect has been to widen the gulf between the top sides and the rest.
This season is the first time in the Premier League era that three sides have made it to November with unbeaten league records. The kind of points returns that have been enough for top spot in Europe’s other top leagues are leaving England’s clubs struggling to keep in the title race. Meanwhile, three Premier League sides made it eight games into the season without a victory, the bottom four have just four wins between them and at least one side is on track to concede over a hundred goals.
Whichever way you come at it, the Premier League is pulling apart at the middle. Inflated income has disproportionately strengthened the elite at the expense of the rest. Soon, there might be nowhere left to go but the promised land of a European super competition.