For what feels like too long now, the Premier League has been split pretty squarely down the middle: either you’re in the top seven, or you’re in a relegation battle. Every year, we complain that the bottom half is the worst it’s ever been, and the fact that Huddersfield and Southampton survived was an indication of the awful quality of football in the top flight.
In reality, though, the state of the Premier League is something of a cautionary tale in the ‘be careful what you wish for’ genre. The biggest complaint ten or 15 years ago was that the Big Four of Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester United were too dominant, and the race for the title and for the Champions League slots was stultifyingly dull as a result. The quartet made up the top four in five out of six seasons between 2003/04 and 2008/09, and at least three of them were in the top four for 11 years running between 2000/01 and 2010/11.
The emergence of Manchester City and Tottenham solved that problem. Every other member of what is now the Big Six have finished sixth or below since City broke into title contention in 2011, the Premier League has not been successfully defended since 2008/09, and the last three seasons have all had a different winner, one of which was Leicester City, for goodness sake.
Outside the top six, the league is full of what should be exciting rags-to-riches success stories, including Bournemouth, Brighton, Burnley, Huddersfield, Leicester, Southampton (last season aside) and Wolves. Being in the Premier League automatically makes you one of the richest clubs in Europe, meaning even the smallest side is able to afford and even recruit practically anyone who can’t find themselves a Champions League club.
On paper, we should have a highly competitive, high-quality league with competition up and down the table. So why have so many of us been so bored for the past few years?
Plenty of people would cite the age-old disenchantment that comes from the game being increasingly distant and money-driven, but a bit of analysis of the league tables suggests the main problem is that The Squeeze has moved to all the wrong places.
The what? The Squeeze! The part of the league table where things get all bunched up, like a spring being pushed from one end or the other, or both. The more good teams there are at the top, the fewer points there are to go around in mid-table – much like how a spring is always the same length but can be expanded or contracted.
When you boil everything down, the location of The Squeeze (or Squeezes) can tell you a lot about both the competition and the entertainment value of a league season. If the Squeeze is too high, most clubs will have nothing to play for by Christmas, which is no fun; that’s precisely why the EFL has play-offs.
The Premier League has the opposite problem: its Squeeze is too low. A Big Six may be preferable to a Big Four in terms of giving those at the top something to fight for right till the final day, but it is having an horrendous effect on the rest of the division.
In the first three years of the Premier League, the average gap between 5th and 8th was just 3.3 points, but over the past three seasons, it’s been 24.9 points. Over the past six years, the teams in 1st, 4th, 5th 6th and 7th have all taken more points than the average for those positions in a 20-team Premier League season. That means teams somewhere else in the table are taking fewer points.
However, the huge increase in TV money over the past decade or so means there is less difference than ever between an established Premier League side with a medium-sized fanbase and a newly promoted side with a tiny stadium; so apart from a few absolute stinkers like 2016’s Aston Villa, the teams at the bottom aren’t losing ground as much as you might think.
Let’s take the average points accumulated by the teams in each league position in the first 11 seasons of a 20-team Premier League (1995 to 2006) and compare it with the last 11 years (2007 to 2018). The smallest movements are at 19th, 8th, 18th and 17th respectively, all of which have dropped by just two points or less.
This means the bigger sides must be taking their extra points from the mid-table sides. If you pull a spring at the top end while keeping the bottom still, it doesn’t expand as evenly as if you pulled it from both ends: you end up with everything clustered at the bottom. That’s what’s happened to the Premier League. The middle teams haven’t gotten worse than before: the top teams have gotten disproportionately better, leading to a low Squeeze.
This is really bad for the game-by-game entertainment value of a competition. Where you have a Squeeze you have a lot of teams of roughly equivalent quality, which makes for the smallest possible margin of error. Where the Squeeze is too low, getting it wrong, even by a little bit, means you’re at risk of relegation.
Lesson one of sports psychology is that you perform better when you have something to win than when you have everything to lose. Take that in tandem with the low Squeeze, and you’ve got over half a top-flight league playing nervously and concentrating more on desperately achieving results than on flair, style and performance. The players themselves may be a different level to their those found at mid-table clubs a decade ago, but that’s worthless if you’re crippled by a combination of fear and restrictive tactics.
Short of cutting the relegation spots to two – which would likely ruin the Championship – it’s difficult to see how the league could extricate itself from this, if indeed it even has any desire to do so. Perhaps, for now, the best thing to do is to try and learn to enjoy the mad relegation battle royale for what it is.