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Why the Premier League should adopt playoffs to crown a champion

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Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola speaks to his team during a Premier League match against Fulham and at Craven Cottage in London, May 11, 2024. (Photo by MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Manchester City’s final climb to their fourth consecutive Premier League title began against a club that I wasn’t sure I wanted to win.and will conclude against a laggard in the middle of the table.

City beat Tottenham on Tuesday and are now top of the league, two points ahead of Arsenal, with one game remaining. That match is against West Ham, a club with a exit coachwith two wins in their last 11 games, and stuck in ninth place with nothing at stake.

Arsenal, meanwhile, will watch from afar, helplessly.

And a provocative question will remain: Is this really the best way to crown a champion?

This is, of course, how English football has been crowning champions since the 1880s. The season-long double round-robin format is deeply ingrained. It is the foundation on which the most popular sports league in the world was built. Offers weekly drama. A meritocratic conclusion is reached. It almost always identifies a deserving winner: the team with the most points after 38 games.

But its disadvantages are evident, now more than ever.

If all goes to plan for Manchester City on Sunday, for the 33rd time in 33 Premier League seasons, the leader who makes it to the final day will lift the trophy, without having to fend off a direct competitor.

In fact, Man City are likely to win the league without having beaten either of their two main rivals this season.

Their record against Arsenal and Liverpool was 0 wins, 3 draws and 1 loss.

Against the top four, the Citizens won once in six tries.

Against the top six, they won twice in 10.

Maybe they’re the best team in England, or maybe they’re not, but either way… shouldn’t they have to prove it head-to-head against any foe who could reasonably dispute their claim?

That, of course, is the concept behind the playoffs, which, if done right, could adapt quite well to this Premier League season and beyond.

Yes, the remainder of the season would be devalued. Yes, they are an intrusive American solution to a problem that doesn’t really exist. Yes, the mere suggestion would provoke a traditionalist pushback. And yes, a packed football calendar may not accommodate them.

But a four-team playoff could make the Premier League even more entertaining.

The development of any championship format actually consists of two ideological debates rolled into one.

First: Should the best team always win or do you prefer surprises and randomness?

Second: Should we maximize the stakes in each game or consolidate importance in end-of-season spectacles?

Most American sports leagues lean too heavily toward end-of-season spectacles. In the NBA, college basketball and MLS, midseason games often seem inconsequential.

Most European football leagues, on the other hand, lean too much in the other direction. The same few clubs almost always win. And seasons often end anticlimactically.

The best formats are in the middle of both spectrums. For a decade, college football achieved a near-ideal balance. Every weekend mattered. A four-team playoff admitted only the true contenders. Those four faced off in front of tens of millions of viewers, with giants susceptible to surprises but the champion always deserved it, just as the Premier League’s best four could.

A variation on that theme is one of two reasonable options for the EPL:

  • After 38 matches, the top four qualify for the semi-finals.

  • No. 1 plays No. 4 in a best-of-three series; Number 2 plays against number 3.

  • The No. 1 seed will have all three games at home, to reward supremacy throughout the season. The second place gets two out of three at home.

  • The winner of each series is based solely on results. That is, the reference point is two wins or one win and two draws. The added goals are only a tiebreaker, in the event that each team wins once and the third game ends in a stalemate. (If the total is also tied, the team with the most regular season points advances.)

  • The winners face each other in a best-of-three final. If the highest seed finished 10 or more points ahead of the lowest seed, they will get all three home games; otherwise, they get two out of three.

The idea here is to preserve most of the tension that accompanies each round of matches, from fall to spring. By making each playoff spot significantly more coveted than the one below it (through home games and playoffs), the top of the table would still be worth chasing.

The chase, of course, would no longer be all or nothing. The pressure on Man City over the last two months would have been less intense. The devastation Arsenal felt after losing to Aston Villa in April would have been a mere disappointment, and the defeat would not have been so costly. Fans would adapt accordingly and the weekly drama would subside, to a point.

But it wouldn’t disappear. And then it would skyrocket, to untold levels, during the playoffs in May.

The other obvious benefit, in 2024, would be that City would have to beat Arsenal or Liverpool, rather than claim a title based largely on their record against bottom 14 teams: 25 wins (so far), 1 draw, 1 defeat.

The broader benefit would be that the bottom 14 could daydream about glory. The Villas and Brightons of the world will probably never surpass all of its richest rivals in 38 games; Statistically, they would be much more likely to sneak into third or fourth place and then pull off some stuns in the playoffs.

If the concern is that eight months of results will essentially disappear and the new “regular season” will lose its gravitas, then there is a second option.

He The most dramatic day in recent memory of European football. It was June 4, 2023 in Belgium, the country with a standard playoff format.

The Belgian Pro League goes through a double round robin, like the rest of Europe, and then splits its table into thirds in May. The top six play another round robin between themselves. They continue to accumulate points, but with a twist: when the first stage of the season ends and this “championship round” begins, all point totals are halved, effectively making each “championship round” match worth double for all participants.

A four-team version of this could work in England. If the current season ended today, City, Arsenal, Liverpool and Villa would enter the show with a table similar to this:

1. Manchester City: 44 points
2. Arsenal: 43 points
3. Liverpool: 39.5 points
4. Aston Villa: 34 points

They would then play six games each, one home and one away, against each of their rival teammates.

Villa would have no chance, because August-April was not good enough. The title would likely come down to two battles at the top between the two undisputed best teams, City and Arsenal.

The biggest obstacle, from a logistical point of view, would be the already packed football calendar. There’s simply no room for six more games.

One solution, within the No. 1 format, would be to reduce the three-game series to one-off matchups, but that would leave the top seed too vulnerable to the randomness of the sport.

The best solution would be to eliminate the League Cup or turn it into an end-of-season consolation tournament, with the four EPL playoff qualifiers exempt. That would open up weekday slots in the fall and winter on everyone’s schedule.

The Premier League could also be reduced from 20 to 18 teams and therefore from 38 to 34 games, which should probably happen anyway, although it will almost certainly never happen.

Playoff bids, similarly, are likely pipe dreams. But the league’s 20 owners seem more disruptive (and American) than ever. Maybe, one day, they will consider the benefits of breaking with tradition.

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