Less is More: Why Having Fewer Football Matches Just Makes Sense – Part 2

Please read Part 1 first if you haven’t already!

European Super League

I hadn’t planned on leaving it so long to write the concluding part, but I now feel compelled to bring it to publication in light of the rumour mill swirling about the ‘European Super League’. a concept that has been mooted for almost as long as I can remember, and one that just never seems to go away, each time gaining a little more traction – not necessarily with league bodies or the fans themselves, but with those whose interests usually centre around profit margins above all other concerns.

In a document leaked by Der Spiegel, five Premier League teams would initially be involved, and the founder sides’ membership of the breakaway competition would be ‘guaranteed for 20 years’, as clear an indication as you’re likely to get in paper of the permanency of the idea.

The reaction has been vociferous, but as you’d expect, not all of it has been in opposition. Admittedly, none of the people I’ve directly spoken to about it have been in favour, and the dividing line has been centred around whether the FA and the Premier League should do all they can to retain the likes of Manchester United, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City, and Arsenal… or let them go.

There are similarities to the formation of the Premier League itself in 1992: clubs with larger fanbases/worldwide audiences wanting a larger slice of the revenue generated to match their ‘status’. Though some of the ‘actors’ differ, the Football League, as it was known then, decided against calling their bluff, in a move that has had untold consequences that are still being felt today. The corridors of power have changed in the quarter of a century since then, and with the benefit of hindsight, they really should have done so. Governance of football at all levels in England is a jumble, which might actually help hasten the elite outfits’ abrogation from the domestic calendar altogether.

Whilst FIFA have threatened to ban players from participating in national team games who are part of the ESL, you have to wonder how much of that is sabre-rattling, together with a degree of shock at this exposé, coming mere days after their own proposed expansion of the Club World Cup was postponed, being resisted by many of the same clubs named in the publication.

Restructuring – The ‘How’

The first part was entirely dedicated to why I felt it was necessary to reduce the number of matches played in the domestic game (which I would also apply globally, although there are obvious complications in trying to enforce that). The method is actually quite simple, and has been made easier in this scenario by assuming the five teams mentioned above. The Premier League’s current composition of 20 is actually something of an anachronism in the current climate, and there have been intermittent calls from a whole number of different vested interests to cut that total down. My slant isn’t to do so to somehow magically improve the English men’s national side, and their run to the semi-finals of this year’s World Cup could easily be used as a large fly in that metaphorical ointment. I come back to the same reasoning I had six weeks ago: it’s just better for the people who matter – the players themselves, the clubs they play for, the fans, the transport network…

Let’s get into the meat of the post. My solution is to propose six leagues consisting of 16 teams each. The rough structure of the top two tiers would remain pretty much as they are currently, and the current third and fourth divisions would be regionalised, much as they were in the mid-part of the 20th Century. Such a measure would necessitate the occasional ‘rebalancing’ of the leagues; for example, would a hypothetical side that plays in the Birmingham area north or south? This issue would arise infrequently, and sides in the Midlands area might find themselves shifted from one to the other to keep journey times and associated costs down for the other members.

Here is a look at how the overall structure would function, using the current standings of the remaining 87 of the 92 teams in the top four leagues to inform the methodology, and adding several of the National League leaders to ensure parity:

New League Structure
(If you have any trouble reading the text in the screenshots, open them in a new window and remove any text after ‘.png’ in the address bar – they will then appear at full size/resolution)

I envisage that the promotion and relegation spots would also be equalised three up, three down; the third promotion spot would be contested in a three-team play-off, with the highest ranked of the trio receiving a bye to the final to be played on neutral ground; this would mean there would be less chance of any one side having nothing to play for as their season draws to the close, and the reduction in games would statistically make it likelier that the battle for positions are tighter. This could also work for the Premier League, where instead of promotion the outfits in third to fifth are vying for, it’s a place in UEFA’s primary and secondary continental competitions (should they still be running in the event of a Super League), much like what happens in the Eredivisie now.

The addition of four to the overall number in the PL/EFL pool to 96 would, of course, have a knock-on effect to each domestic cup, too. Firstly, the Checkatrade/EFL Trophy would, for all intents and purposes, retain its current structure, but eschew the Category 1 sides from the competition, having been an unmitigated disaster in both the esteem in which the poor sibling of the three is held, and on the already paltry crowds that attended matches before current EFL chairman Shaun Harvey’s masterstroke.

As I mentioned before, the group games in the first round would all be played close together at the end of pre-season. The groups themselves would be quite static in terms of who plays who, keeping each mini-league as tight-knit geographically to each other as possible. The only initial draw would be to determine which of them would have the advantage of playing two of the three matches at home in the current single round robin format. Additionally, just like now, the subsequent knockout rounds would be regionalised, pitting the ‘winner’ from north and south against each other in the final on neutral ground.

The most radical change would come in the EFL Cup. Given more room to breathe, and now played on Saturdays, the first round would have a regionalised, unseeded draw, and be free of any Championship outfits. Every subsequent round would be nationwide, ensuring as far as practical that very few sides in the third and fourth tiers would go too long without pitting their wits against a team they wouldn’t normally come into direct contact with. The semi-finals would be single leg affairs, and just like the Checkatrade, a draw would be made to determine which teams were the hosts.

The most notable differences in the FA Cup would be the necessary increase of teams in the First Round Proper from 124 to 128. There would be no regionalisation from the entry of EFL sides, and, just as now, the third round would bring all the top two tier teams. The semi-finals would not take place at Wembley, and would instead follow a similar pattern to that outlined in the other cups; that ‘privilege’ would be reserved solely for the final of the FA Cup and no other competition. Replays would be scrapped, but because of a more equitable redistribution of money in the game, this would have much less impact than it would do otherwise.

How would all of this affect the calendar in reality? Let’s take a glance at Bury’s fixture list for 2018/2019. I haven’t added all the remaining rounds of competitions they are in, but you can still see, it’s quite relentless:

Current Fixture Structure 1Current Fixture Structure 2

Discounting friendlies, the bare minimum they will play from August to May is 50. A win tomorrow and any avoidance of defeat in 90 minutes next Tuesday will take that total to 52.

Now let’s look at an extreme example of a season in the new model, assuming for the sake of argument it takes place in 2019/2020:

Example Extreme Fixture List 1Example Extreme Fixture List 2

If the Shakers could somehow go on a cup run on all fronts (stop laughing at the back), and participate in a play-off, their total number of matches, discounting the pre-EFL Trophy friendlies, would once more be 52. But it’s very unlikely they’d come close to this number, and, given their recent history, it’s much more probable that it would be under 40. This would leave several occasions where they wouldn’t have a fixture of any kind on a weekend, allowing more time for players to recover from injuries and for other off-pitch matters to be worked on, which can sometimes be confined to quite a tight window in the summer.

Other Things To Consider

The ramifications of a European Super League are difficult to determine, but the impact would surely be felt worldwide. The domestic game in England would be affected, as would the national teams if FIFA made good on their threat. Either way, a big rethink is required on what matters most in football – is it higher crowds, better welfare for players and a more equitable way of reinvesting in grassroots, or the constant crowbarring in of more and more matches, blatantly disregarding health and logistics, and financial greed? A reduction in fixtures would not in isolation be a silver bullet, but, along with other measures I’ll write about in future, could improve matters substantially.