At this point in a marvelously topsy-turvy Premier League season, it’s hard to determine which has been the more stunning turn of events: Leicester City’s transformation from basement dweller into table toppers, or Chelsea’s nearly apocalyptic crash. (The answer is definitely Chelsea’s fall, but still.) And while it’s tempting to view both situations as little more than those flukes that pop up every now and then, it’s actually evidence of a deeper, systemic change in the league. This is the new EPL.
Much of the discussion around the league’s £5 billion domestic television rights deal centered on what this new influx of money meant for the overall strength of the league vis-à-vis the rest of Europe. Thanks to the league’s equitable share of TV revenue, once the new deal kicked in, the entire league would enjoy a significant injection of cash which could then be invested back into the teams themselves in the form of higher wages and bigger transfer fees, luring even more top-class players. This money would put even lower-table English sides on equal economic footing with big clubs from other European leagues, and as we’ve seen in the post-Bosman, rich-foreign-owner era, more spent on players generally leads to success on the pitch.
While everyone awaited the new even richer and deeper EPL of 2016 and beyond, they forgot that these factors, on a somewhat smaller scale, had slowly but surely been buffing up the middle part of the league for years now. Previous television contracts and the attractiveness of the league’s guaranteed popularity and profitability to well-monied outside ownership groups have given clubs not among the traditional powers more money to throw around to strengthen their squads even before this latest deal. Toss in the allure of winding up with a slice of the new TV money pie next season, spurring even small clubs like Watford and Aston Villa into spending a bunch to maximize their odds of staying up, and you can see how what was already the most top-to-bottom competitive league in the Europe got even stronger throughout.
Proof of that is in just how tight the league has been this season. It seems like every week now we think we get some clarity on what will happen in the league going forward; then, the very teams that looked like they might kick on and put the title to bed, or mount a serious challenge for the trophy, or lock in a spot in the top four, goes on to drop points against clubs you’d normally expect them to deal with easily.
Take last weekend for example: title contenders Manchester City and Arsenal both came out of their respective matches with wins, but Manchester United lost to Bournemouth, once again hampering their chances of actually contending for the top spot in the table; Liverpool and Tottenham dropped points at home to West Brom and Newcastle, respectively, right when either one could’ve made a strong play for the fourth Champions League spot that Chelsea’s collapse has opened up; and Everton, who’ve looked as good as anyone at times behind the staggering growth of Gerard Deulofeu and Romelu Lukaku, drew with Norwich when they could’ve boosted their own UCL aspirations with a win. Week after week, teams that normally should coast to victory are coming up against talented, deep squads from the bottom half of the table and leaving the stadium with an L.
This is borne out in the stats. Through 16 games, Everton currently sit smack dab in the middle of the table with 23 points, 9 points above the relegation zone, and 12 away from the top of the table. Over the past five seasons, the 10th-place team has averaged 20.8 points through 16 games, is 6.6 points above the drop, and are a whopping 17 points off the table leaders. Even halfway through the season, the midtable finds itself closer to the top than the bottom.
The trend appears even more stark when you project ahead. Here’s an image comparing two end-of-season points projections from two different models, one being analytics writer Michael Caley’s and the other from Euro Club Index:
Over the last five seasons, the EPL champion has averaged 86.2 points by the end of the year, and the fourth place team has averaged 71.8. As you can see, these projections predict that both numbers will be lower than the norm this season, particularly for the champion. This is most likely a direct result of the unusual depth in the league this season. (These numbers also reflect the relative weakness of the clubs at the top, which is a separate issue, considering English clubs’ struggles in continental tournaments.)
The hierarchy in the Premier League still appears to be mostly set: Arsenal and Man City will duke it out for the title, United should pretty safely consolidate one of the remaining two Champions League berths, while Spurs, Liverpool, and (Jesus Christ, they really have to be taken seriously now, don’t they?) Leicester goddamn City wrestle for the last one. Underneath is a core of exciting teams with studs like Lukaku and Xherdan Shaqiri and Dimitri Payet and Yannick Bolasie and Sadio Mané and Georginio Wijnaldum—players that would be valuable additions to many of the best teams in the world but instead are happy to ply their trade (with considerable renumeration, of course) for English clubs content with finishing midtable—that continue to push their presumed superiors every minute of every week in the world’s most maddeningly, thrillingly unpredictable league. We’ve already reached a brave new world. Expect it to only get crazier from here on out.
Photo via AP