English Football – Change by Numbers

It’s a fact that big money has affected football on and off the pitch but how do the statistics bear that out? As the season enters its 2016-17 season enters its decisive phase this article looks at how the changes in football have affected outcomes at the top level of the English game.

Many of the changes in football over the years are obvious. Players are fitter and mostly faster, grounds are better and more comfortable, attendances are mostly higher and there is, more matches are televised and, like it or not, there is more money in the game. Possibly the biggest improvement in the modern era is the standard of playing surfaces, essential for skillful football. But go down to your local food bank and ask any of the recently sacked managers queuing for a tin of spam will tell you football is about results. So how do the statistics show how the game has changed?

Looking at the Premier League table (above) after 23 matches  three facts spring out. First, Chelsea’s points total is only marginally behind the schedule to equal their record of 95 points (1). Second, the next four teams average above two points per game. Third, no fewer than six teams average less than a point per game – including last season’s Champions, Leicester City. Last season the equivalent numbers were two teams on 2 points and four below a point.

In the era of two points for a win the conventional wisdom was ‘a win at home and a draw away’ would be enough to win the division – 1.5 points a game under the old system. That is the equivalent of today’s two point per game average that is a good indicator to being in the zone for winning leagues or promotion. At the other end of the table and average of 0.75 points was the target to stay up – the equivalent of a point per game (2)

The widening gap between top and bottom

First with the introduction of three points for a win and, more significantly, as the Premier League established itself, teams at the top won more points and team at the bottom accumulated fewer. The simplest way to show this trend is the graph below showing the number of teams achieving and falling short of these watermarks over the past 60 years. The trend is stark – more than twice the teams are achieving 2 points per win than was once the case (adjusting totals for 3 points for a win and for the 38 game season (3)). Meanwhile three times as many teams fail to accumulate a point per game.

 

‘No soft games’ is a bit of a myth

The hook of football is its unpredictability. It still happens that one of the top sides loses to one of the strugglers, and it certainly happens more often than in most other sports. However, in the Premier League it is happening less often as the polarisation of the league table is showing. More teams are surviving in the division on less than a point a game. With more points at the top and fewer at the bottom that suggests that, even though the league itself is competitive, the extremes of the division are less and less so.

Top and Bottom Points English Football Top Flight

Figure 1 – the widening gap between top and bottom looking at 5 year spans since 1956 (4).

 

Winning the Premier League is harder than ever, usually

As teams at the top take a greater share of the points and totals become higher more points are required to win the Premier League. Applying three points for a win and equivalence for a 20-team league it has been quite common for teams to achieve 88 points and over when winning the title while more often than not the runner up came home well ahead of the 76 points once considered a title winning total. 88 points is the equivalent of the record totals for 46 match seasons held by Lincoln City and Reading on 2 points and 3 points for a win respectively

Points won by English Football Champions

Figure 2 – scatter of winning points total shows a rising trend and that the top sides end up with more points under 3 points for a win.

The top six is the same six – a different league

As the Premier League has matured over 25 year a small number of clubs have increasingly dominated the top six league positions. The incentive to finish in a Champions’ League slot means there is a real difference between finishing third and fifth and the financial rewards both direct and indirect make this a self-fulfilling prophecy – to some extent.

Figure 3 shows the steady decline in the spread of teams winning both the title and achieving a place in the top six from seven and twenty from 1955-66 to four and eleven in 2006-16 since the advent of multi-place Champion’s League qualification.

Englsih Football Top 6 Finishers

Figure 3 – the concentration of power within an elite tier of clubs

There’s always the Cup, isn’t there?

The FA Cup was historically a more open competition than the league – at least from the abolition of the maximum wage in 1961. From then till the mid-1990s the FA Cup was won by a team in the top six half of the time. In the last 20 years 9 out of ten winners have been from the top six. So much for the top sides not taking the Cup seriously. The spread of winners of the League Cup has, however, remained fairly flat save for the blip from 76-86 accounted for by Liverpool and Nottingham Forest dominating the competition. This is odd, considering that there is no real difference between winning the FA Cup and the League Cup – both deliver a place into the same European competition which only represents an insurance policy against not qualifying for the Champions’ League.

English Cup Winners in top 6

Figure 4 – Winning the cup is more difficult too, unless it’s that other one even Leicester win. 

Wasn’t it ever thus?

You could argue that things were always the same. A few teams have dominated the top of the league from time to time through the history of the game. So isn’t the notion that ‘the game is being ruined’ just the same mantra greybeards have been trotting out since goalkeepers were forced to wear a different shirt to the rest of the team?

The notion of ‘ruin’ is a value judgement that usually boils down to a lament on the influence of money in professional sport. What is interesting is to track trends against changes. The big events being:

  • The end of the maximum wage (1960-61)
  • The Premier League (1992-93)
  • The Bosman Ruling (1995)
  • The Champions’ League (up to four clubs per country) (1999)

The most significant of these changes was the first. Everything that has happened since simply continued the trend. The end of the maximum wage was the real arrival of professionalism in football and its effect was steadily to concentrate talent within a few teams. The emergence of a single dominant team took some years but while Leeds had threatened by the mid-70s Liverpool emerged as the team that would dominate the game for two decades. In only one year in 19 did they finish outside the top two and even then carried off the small matter of the European Cup. Money generated by success in Europe, live television revenues and sponsorship sustained their remarkable record.

The great irony is the Liverpool have been the biggest losers from the emergence of super rich clubs. Already undermined by the 1986-91 UEFA ban, the arrival of the Premier League and the revival of Manchester United brought a new dominant club (5). However, that was relatively short lived. The Bosman judgement opened the market for players, the Champions League provided the incentive for finance on a scale previously unimagined to establish an elite tier of clubs competing among themselves for places in the top four. TV revenues provide the income to pay crazy wages even under financial fair play rules. It now seems unlikely that a single team will be able to dominate the top flight without significant change to the financial basis of football.

English Football Top 6 and Cup Winning Clubs

Figure 5 – The same clubs – there were always a small collection of clubs at the top, but they stayed at the top for a shorter period. Jimmy Hill, Bill Shankly and Don Revie changed all that. Gredually there is less white in the chart. The abbreviations should be obvious. * denotes a team outside the top tier. 

That’s Entertainment!

If you view sport as entertainment and spectacle then the picture is hardly bleak. The standard of football on display in the modern English leagues is way higher: more skilful, faster, with more goals scored and more quality players than in the past. With some notable exceptions the Championship compares favourably with the top flight of the 1970s and 80s in terms of fitness, speed and skill.  For tiers two to five the leagues are more open, competitive, the matches are better attended that in the past and are just as entertaining. The Premier League is fiercely contested – the only problem is the winners and top six come from the same few super-rich clubs. For the other 14, if the fact that your club can’t really compete at the top and its best aspiration is the League Cup, top-flight survival and rare wins against the elite then that’s OK.

American sport maintains its competitiveness by skewing it’s college draft system. This kind of manipulation is anathema to football and seems unlikely to find favour with supporters. So the prospects of change look slim right now, however, if the decline of Liverpool and the demise of Manchester United as the dominant forces in English football teaches us anything it’s that nothing lasts forever.

JH 1.2.17

 

Notes

(1) This is by far the highest share of the points won in any league once adjusted – the equivalent of 115 points in a 46 match season. It is, however, fair to question whether such a total would have been achieve against the demands of 46 matches. That said, the demands of European competition do not apply to lower tier clubs, which are also likely to play fewer cup ties.

(2) It should be said that achieving 2 points a game under 3 points for a win, while the mathematical equivalent of ‘a win at home and a draw away’ is easier to achieve than under the old system – as the comparison of scatter graphs in Figure 2 illustrates.

(3) The adjustment is calculated on the basis of results achieved rather than point equivalence and is then applied to the number of games on a straight points average.

(4) The mid-fifties is taken as the starting point of the modern game with the slaughter of England by Hungary in 1953 and the first European Champions’ Cup competition in 1955. Following these events the primitive English game was forced to wake up to more sophisticated tactics on the pitch and in 1960 to free up player wages partly to prevent an exodus of talent to mainland Europe.

(5) Domination is defined here as a period of consecutive seasons where a single team is winner or runner-up of the top tier. Other definitions are available.