The English Premier League is widely considered the most entertaining domestic sporting competition in the world. And yet, less than halfway through, its 2017-18 season is over.
OK, it’s not over. But the title race more or less is.
Manchester City is 11 points clear atop the table. It is setting an unrelenting and historic pace, and showing no signs of easing up. By February or March, it may very well have sapped considerable intrigue out of a league typically brimming with it.
It’s therefore the perfect time to pose a provocative, polarizing question: Would the Premier League be better with a postseason playoff to determine its champion?
It’s a fascinating debate, and one that ropes in everything from psychological principles to statistical analysis to league-specific characteristics to informed speculation. Ultimately, the answer is no. But it’s not an unequivocal no.
How would Premier League playoffs be structured?
You could argue for a six- or eight-team format, but a four-team, two-round postseason would undoubtedly be best. First vs. fourth, second vs. third, and then a final. We won’t waste our time with any other proposals.
The semifinals and final would be either one-off games hosted by the higher seed, two-leg series, or best-of-threes. Unfortunately, all three possibilities exacerbate a concern. Single-game showdowns would further devalue the regular season and increase the probability of flukes. Best-of-threes would run players further into the ground. And a two-leg system devalues the regular season as well, because it strips away home-field advantage. (Also, aggregate is very bad.)
Three-game series are the best option, with the regular-season winner hosting all three matches against the fourth seed as a reward for the regular-season title. The second-place finisher would host two of three against the third seed, and the best semifinal winner would host two of three to decide the title.
The winner would be based solely on results, not aggregate goals. But, in the event of a win for each team and a draw, goals would be the first tiebreaker. The second would be regular-season points.
Wait … that would be amazing, wouldn’t it?
Yes – this year, at least. The battle for the Champions League places is already shaping up to be the most compelling in Premier League history. Now imagine it as a playoff race. Even better.
And the semifinals and final, of course, would be massive occasions. They’d be almost as big as their Champions League equivalents. Think about an in-form, upset-minded Liverpool going to the Etihad to face a bored-for-the-past-three-months City. Or a locked-into-second-place Manchester United, rather than ending its season with snoozers against Brighton and Watford, hosting and traveling to Chelsea. This year, a four-team playoff would undoubtedly make the stretch run, and probably the entire season, more fun.
But there isn’t always a bottleneck of six teams for three spots. In fact, back in the Big Four days, before Man City and Tottenham joined the elite, a four-team playoff would have sucked almost all life out of the season.
And there isn’t always a runaway title winner. It’s crucial to keep that in mind. A four-team playoff would have robbed us of some great title races over the years. It would have ruined AgueroooooOOOOOOOAAAAAAHHHHHH, and Leicester, and Liverpool’s magical run gone awry, and so much more.
The best argument in favor of a postseason actually isn’t Manchester City’s already-commanding lead. It’s Burnley. Burnley, like 13 other Premier League teams and over a hundred more throughout England, has no shot at winning a title. Not this year, and – barring tectonic shifts underneath English football’s surface – not ever.
But Burnley does have slim hopes of finishing fourth. It would have similarly slim odds of beating Manchester City in a three-game series, and another Big Six power in a final. But that scenario exists. And it doesn’t just exist for Burnley. It exists for the rest of the Other 14 as well.
The irony is that Leicester’s miracle might have ended without silverware had a playoff system been in place. But a playoff makes a repeat of a Leicester-like miracle more feasible. It’s easier to be fourth-best over 38 games and marginally better over a few than it is to be the absolute best over 38.
The MLS comparison
Ignore the obesity of the MLS playoffs for second. And ignore the league’s two-conference model. And the size of the U.S. In a weird way, the respective systems in the Premier League and MLS would be better off flip-flopped.
Playoffs lend themselves to stratification. They enable a Burnley. And then, more often than not, they pit giants against one another for the ultimate prize. That’s why they’re attractive in the Prem.
On the other hand, a single-table, double-round-robin, postseason-less structure lends itself to parity. Every MLS season begins with not-entirely-outlandish scenarios for each team finishing the regular season with the most points. Without playoffs, some seasons would enter the final two months with as much as half the league in contention for the title. That’d be be incredible. Instead, the playoffs are absurdly inclusive, and the regular season is mostly irrelevant. (And not many people even watch the playoffs, anyway.)
All of this is to say that a four-team playoff might actually make more sense in the Premier League than any other league in the world. But it still wouldn’t better it.
The logistical flaws
First of all, there are some nagging problems with playoffs. Problem 1A is fitting them onto an already overcrowded calendar. If you’re playing six more games, are you moving up the start of the season three weeks at minimum? All the way into July?
Because of the FA Cup final, the Champions League final and international tournaments, you can’t just stick games at the end of the season. You could perhaps cram in more midweek fixture rounds, but that leads to problem 1B: fatigue.
If anything, Premier League players need fewer games, not more. Asking some to play 44 matches over the same nine-month timeframe – plus European competitions, plus FA Cup, plus League Cup, plus internationals – is ridiculous.
And the unintended consequence would be that many of those playoff games, billed as the banner events, would be slogs. The quality of play would be poor. Either that, or many regular season games would turn into exhibitions. Managers, knowing they must peak in May, would give players extended rest. Intensity would suffer.
And if, rather than three-game series, you go straight knockout-style? Then a single lucky goal or poor refereeing decision can undo 38 games of brilliance. And that’s dumb.
The overarching flaw
The excitement of the Premier League – the reason tens of millions of people watch it every weekend – is that every game matters. Each of the 38 counts equally toward the final result. Rather than pack as much importance as possible into one or a few matches, most European soccer leagues distribute it somewhat evenly over nine months. The result is unparalleled drama.
This isn’t just about meritocratic principles – it’s not only that the best team over 38 games, rather than two, or four, or six, should be the champion. It’s about the value of, and thus potential drama in, a given game. Importance plus quality equals watchability. Some American sports leagues get half of that equation wrong. A few often get both halves wrong. The Premier League often gets both right. That’s why it’s the most revered sporting theatre in the world. And it’s why playoffs wouldn’t better it; they’d harm it.
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