19 May ~ It's been a season of few highlights and even fewer surprises across Europe's most vaunted leagues. Manchester United are champions of England yet again without ever having appeared to hit full stride, let alone captivate hearts and imaginations. AC Milan and Dortmund strolled to the Serie A and Bundesliga titles a few weeks back, having long since built unassailable leads. When Barcelona hammered their sole likely challengers Real Madrid 5-0 last autumn, only a severe crisis of form and injury was going to prevent them lifting the Spanish championship. It's been a dud year, and raises a simple question that is rarely posed: is league football overrated? Or, put another way: is it time to consider a change of format?

In European football circles, it's heresy to suggest that we should consider an American-style system of play-offs at the end of the campaign. God forbid that the season should end on a climactic note, with a big-game occasion. That's what the FA Cup final is for, isn't it? Yet look at what the Cup final has become – relegated to the second story of the day behind Manchester United's record number of title wins, and competing for attention with any number of Premier League relegation stories. But should Wayne Rooney's goal from a dubiously awarded penalty kick in a 1-1 draw at Ewood Park really be the crowning moment of a competition that's selling itself globally as the hugest, most entertaining domestic league ever?

Play-offs were reviled when they were first introduced for the final promotion spot throughout the Football League, but it's difficult to argue against their success in prolonging interest and motivation for mid-table sides up until the season's latter stages. In the top flights, there is no such motivation, and even the chance of a Europa League slot is a distant and not necessarily desired prospect. Below the usual Champions League suspects lies a morass of forgettable, also-ran mediocrity, packed with teams who start every campaign in a competition they know that they have absolutely no hope of winning. Don't even get me started on Scotland.

The case against play-offs centres on their gimmickry, and that if a team are champions over 38 games, then as champions they should be crowned. There's also the ostensibly strong argument for sticking with tradition. Not that the case for tradition stood a chance when the Premier League was founded and the European Cup was reformed, and those were both significant steps in creating the predictable, top-heavy leagues we see today (the Bundesliga, with its tight financial rules, remains an exception in throwing up periodically unexpected winners alongside Bayern's regular triumphs, though that doesn't guarantee an exciting competition). So, accepting that football allowed those changes to happen, that wealthy clubs will not easily relinquish their stranglehold and that Michel Platini's attempts to regulate the wealth of the Champions League elite will eventually be either watered down or circumvented, shouldn't we examine ways that we can make leagues more interesting, competitive and unpredictable?

Here's a football journalist scribbling on the back of a fag packet late one night, with a glass in his other hand. He pictures a 14-team Premier League. At the end of a 26-game season, the top two teams are given Champions League berths for the following season, but all top eight teams compete in the play-offs for the right to be champions. First place plays eighth, second plays seventh etc. They play a best-of-three series, with the higher team receiving home advantage in the first and, if necessary, third games. The four winners then compete over three games in the semi-finals, and in the three-game final series too.

There'd be Champions League spots for the two finalists, or next best teams if the finalists were in the top two league spots. True champions should be playing more competitive games against the other top teams anyway, rather than sleepwalking to endless home wins against hapless, hopeless opponents. Look at Manchester United's almost perfect home record this season, played out before massive crowds often silenced by the depressingly naked imbalance between the two teams playing below. Worthy champions? Maybe, by default, but not convincingly.

Back to my tab-end blueprint. The bottom six teams stage the same format three-game knockout relegation play-offs along with the sixth- and seventh-placed teams from an 18-team Premier League 2, the winners claiming or regaining a single Premier League place. The top five PL2 teams are promoted automatically, with Europa League spots for the top two. In the Premier League, simultaneously fighting relegation or clamouring to be in the Championship play-offs would be the norm. At the same time, although the number of games would be reduced, the fact that so many more matches would be meaningful would raise their sales value. With five or six teams promoted or demoted, relegation needn't seem like doom. And the FA Cup and League Cup could move towards regaining their status because they would no longer be regarded as clogging up a crowded calendar.

Feel free to discuss, deride and destroy. But whatever the flaws in any radical rethink, the current format is moribund, and involves too many teams in the top flight playing for safety, while the same dominant group of cash-backed clubs have largely annexed the top spots beyond the point of tedium. Without a more dynamic, imaginative restructuring of the competition, the Premier League will stagnate until it stinks, with most fans as indifferent to Manchester United's 90th title as we were to their 19th. Ian Plenderleith

Comments (20)
Comment by Gerry Forrest 2011-05-19 11:11:27

Well, I am all for change, but how would Premier League football club chairmen be convinced? I presume there would have to be some kind of vote, although I fear I am exposing my ignorance on who makes these decisions.

Comment by mistrollingin 2011-05-19 11:14:32

Excellent piece which throws up some really interesting questions. I think that you are right that there needs to be change if the Premier League is not to stagnate but I am not sure whether I would prefer it to change or die.
It amazes me that Man Utd fans would want ot be unchallenged winners of the league or Birmingham fans are happy to watch year after year of tedious games so long as they don't get relegated, to a much more exciting and competitive division.
Watching my team in the Championship is entertaining and it is impossible to predict what will happen from week to week but it is ironic that the goal we are all competing for is to enter a league that will largely rob us of that enjoyment.

Comment by drew_whitworth 2011-05-19 11:18:11

It's an interesting idea Ian, but I suspect it would do nothing to relieve what you rightly identify as the real reason behind this kind of dominance - the financial imbalance between the top teams and the rest. You point to Germany as a counter-case and then observe that 'tight financial rules' are a contributing factor here. Would a play-off system change this on its own? It might throw up occasional blips whereby a single poor performance from, say, Arsenal against Bolton might eliminate the Gunners at the play-off quarter-final stage but as long as the Champions League still existed I doubt it would result in any great redistribution of wealth.

Actually there have been moments this season where the Premier League looked like sparking a bit of interest in me and even though it's turned out much the same at the top, the fact that Manchester City and Tottenham have over the last couple of years upset the applecart a bit - for all that the source of the former club's success is dubious - is cause for some mild optimism. As long as there are more genuine contenders for Champions League places than there are places, something which was not true about 3 or 4 years back, then we have a potential route for a shake up. At some point in the next few years, however much they try to avoid it, Manchester United have to replace Ferguson, and that's not going to be easy; and UEFA will eventually get their way with stricter financial rules which will have some impact on teams like Chelsea.

The real issue, for me, and the dominant factor in the lopsided leagues that are Scotland and Spain (both of which you mention), is TV income, and broadcasters' disinterest in anything other than the two big clubs who garner the biggest audiences. I suppose it's too much to hope that the TV audience will eventually get tired of the same old stuff and start turning off; but regardless, Internet broadcasting does change the game slightly as it gives all clubs the potential to actually attain a bit more equality with respect to bigger teams, if they employ someone with a bit of nous in that department and then don't just chuck their money away on has beens with ridiculous wage demands. In other words, good marketing strategy coupled with good financial management is still a route to relative success.

What we then need is a governing body with some clout, and able to enforce a certain redistribution of the overall pot: and here I have no faith at all in the FA/PL but I do have a _bit_ of faith in UEFA. Platini, for all his faults, does genuinely seem to me to have an interest in dealing with this issue. And who knows, it may even be that Sky, eventually, realise they will make more money from a competitive PL (and CL) than a pre-ordained one.

Don't get me wrong, I am hardly optimistic, but I am, perhaps, a little less pessimistic than you. As long as we can still see a team like Fulham get to a European final (and beat Juventus on the way), or Stoke to the Cup final, or Blackpool to the Premiership at all (and not 'do a Derby', at least), then I'm still interested enough.

Comment by brodes 2011-05-19 11:26:40

Forgive me for disagreeing, in part, with your argument Ian, as I find you one of WSC's best contributors, but...

The very idea of a play-off system to decide a league champion leaves me cold. Nothing proves a team's worth like a league season, with matches played home and away against all opposition. Whereas the thought of a team finishing, say, 20 points behind the top side and then winning in a play-off to be crowned "champions" just seems unfair. Why not just change the Premier League to the Champions League format, if a final is what you want?

The play-offs work in the Football League because the best two (or three) teams go up automatically and those below them can scrap for the remaining promotion place. While this can still involve one team finishing many points above another but losing out on promotion, a line has to be drawn somewhere.

This has been an amusing season in which millions of pounds have been spent (City) and great names and past champions faltered (Chelsea) while arguably the best side to watch (Arsenal) have been shown up as gutless wonders. United, it is true, won by default. They won because everyone else was was worse than them. But that still sounds fairer to me than a one-off final to decide the champions.

Comment by Blackmac79 2011-05-19 11:36:34

Being from Australia where the Finals or "play-offs" as you English call them. I have to say that while they do provide a Climax many look at you with envy of your first past the post method. But alas we have tradition built by other sports.

Grass is always greener.

Comment by StephL 2011-05-19 12:16:00

We have a Play-off system in Belgium, and Standard who finished the regular competition 16 points behind the then leaders Anderlecht missed the title in the end for 0,5 point! Racing Genk were the eventual champions. While undoubtely exciting, it really is a crazy system.

Comment by g77 2011-05-19 12:35:44

I'm not sure who actually considers the Premier League to be dull. People keep watching it and going to games despite it being "boring". Sky don't seem to have any issue selling subscriptions to watch it (unless people get Sky Sports for the darts). Not broken. Don't fix. I'm sure it gets tedious to write about the same things all the time, but watching the PL isn't boring. And who wants a 'championship' that Bolton might win? It would be a joke. That would STOP people watching it.

Comment by Efficient Baxter 2011-05-19 13:53:26

Given most people seem to think that the imbalance of Champions League money provides the staid look to the top of the league, why not play off for the Champions League places.

Top two as Champions & runners up guaranteed CL entry. 3rd down to six play off for an extra Champions league spot. Everyone else in the play off gets Europa League entry.

The extra CL spot goes to FA Cup winners. If FA Cup winners are in the top six, then play offs drop to top 7.

League Cup winners get... the League Cup. No-one seems to want Europa qualification anyway.

This might still ensure we see the same faces in the CL spots, but at least it gives other teams a (second) bite of the cherry.

Comment by Hoofer 2011-05-19 15:06:06

As a Barnet fan who would dearly love to be in the playoffs some season, I would suggest an altenative.

1) Give the FA Cup winners a place in the Champions League and not the losers who finish 4th. That will be incentive enough to ensure FA Cup is treated with the respect it deserves.

(If only we could go back to only 4 TV Channels with 1 and 3 cup final coverage from 9am to 6pm)

2) Reduce number of European places available altogether. Why should a 3rd/4th place team play in the Champions League? The original European format (European Cup, UEFA Cup and Cup Winners Cup was so so much better). The Europa League is a tarnished competiton where mediocrity is encouraged

3) Change end of season playoffs to include bottom of league teams to playoff against teams top of league below

Comment by t.j.vickerman 2011-05-19 15:21:55

The idea of giving the FA Cup winner a Champions League spot sounds good but since the Greedy League started, most of those teams are the same ones that finish in the top few positions in the league anyway.

I don't like the idea of sides playing off to avoid relegation and think it's better as a positive reward for teams that perform well. I'd like to see a uniform 3 automatic slots play off from 4th-7th/4 down across all the divisions.

In the mid 90s the UEFA Cup was often stronger than the European Cup as many upcoming teams on their way to better things were competing along with the traditional giants that hadn't made the European Cup. That is a competition in need of a revamp instead of being a second rate Champions League without the cash. Either a reversion to the classic 2 legs knockout all the way through (abolishing away goals and dropping seedings) or a European FA Cup with unseeded ties played on a one-off basis (possibly with replays in the event of a draw).

Comment by t.j.vickerman 2011-05-19 15:25:11

Damn. Missed a . Basically, the League 2 system of 4 up (1 through Play-Offs)/4 down should be used by all the leagues. I know it's a non-starter but...

Comment by jameswba 2011-05-19 16:27:38

Thought-provoking article and interesting responses. Definitely agree with the premise of a need to debate these matters. A few random observations :

1. The article refers to play-offs as 'American style', which may be true but is it equally true to suggest that America has always embraced them and Europe rejected them? I've just re-read an old Bill Bryson article about baseball where he refers to cynicism about the introduction of such a system for the baseball World Series. On the other hand, Europe has play-offs in plenty of other sports, including rugby, ice-hockey etc
2. Man Utd might not have been outstanding this season but is there really anything wrong with the fact that (eg) Wolves beat them, WBA came from 2-0 down to draw with them (plug for my team there) etc? I'm not sure you can claim both that Utd have been unconvincing and that they've 'sleepwalked to endless victories'. Also, are you sure you really want to see more Chelsea v Man Utd games to prove Utd are true champions? Personally, endless games between 'top' sides leave me a bit cold.
3. There is an acknowledgement that the Bundesliga has been a bit different this season but I think the article underplays the point. It's actually a wonderfully unpredictable league. Wolfsburg won it 2 years ago but nearly got relegated, Hannover almost went down last year but were battling it out for 3rd this time, Mainz finished 5th despite attendances of just 20,000 etc. I'd say it's a league that could do without any tinkering. Perhaps I'm biased as I saw a game in it for the first time recently and it was a magnificent experience.

I do take some points, though, and can even see that, if a team wins the 'regular' league AND your suggested play-off, they could deservedly be regarded as 'true' champions, having won in two different formats. That happened here (Slovakia) in ice-hockey this season ; no dispute, then, that Kosice are the best team in the country. If a different team won the play-off, well, you could say that everyone knew the format all along. My sense is that teams would ultimately learn to plan for the new format and, more often than not, the play-off winners would be the team finishing top of the 'regular' league.

I honestly don't know if it would be right to change, though, as I said, it's good to be thinking about it.

Comment by Dalef65 2011-05-19 17:55:13

Im not knocking the thinking behind this article because change may indeed pep up the top level of English Football.....

But here are a few comments/observations/questions that I have picked out (In no particular order)......

1. How many teams,if any,would be relegated from the PL2 to the Football League under this system.....?

2. The point of question 1 is that if PL2 has up to 8 teams changing Division each season,ie 5 up and 3 down,how unstable would that be as a Division,and I can hardly see clubs agreeing to this.

3. Europa League spots to the promoted sides.....Why exactly..?

4. The three-legged games would soon become boring,especially if you kept getting the same sides playing each other year after year....(and that IS what would happen....!)

5. Who gets the automatic Champions League spots.The Winners of the "League" or the winners of the three-legged play-off series..?

6. A couple of people have alluded to giving the FA CUP winners a
Champions League spot,and then in the next breath have gone on to imply that the ECWC (or a variant thereof)would be a good idea..
This is totally contradictory.....
Once the FA cup winners get a CL place,then any residual competition solely for Cup winners would become redundant,wouldnt it.....?

Having said all that it is good to hear voices that are not simply willing to go along with the tired old status quo....

Comment by David Agnew 2011-05-19 18:34:57

"Play-offs were reviled when they were first introduced for the final promotion spot throughout the Football League, but it's difficult to argue against their success in prolonging interest and motivation for mid-table sides up until the season's latter stages."

So we punish good sides by possibly taking away higher finishes Great way to reward mediocrity. Are playoffs successful? They generate money, and television love them, but I doubt those Championship sides that have finished third after 46 games would consider them to be a success, regardless of whether they win them or not.

After all, if play-offs were so great, the Premier League would have introduced them years ago.

"The very idea of a play-off system to decide a league champion leaves me cold. Nothing proves a team's worth like a league season, with matches played home and away against all opposition. Whereas the thought of a team finishing, say, 20 points behind the top side and then winning in a play-off to be crowned "champions" just seems unfair. ... The play-offs work in the Football League because the best two (or three) teams go up automatically and those below them can scrap for the remaining promotion place. While this can still involve one team finishing many points above another but losing out on promotion, a line has to be drawn somewhere."

Surely, if a team finish third after 38 or 46 games, they should be awarded the prizes that go with third place, rather than allow teams that finished below them a second shot. If the logic works for first, it should work for third, too.

Comment by JimDavis 2011-05-19 19:01:55

Is this an article from 2008 or something? I haven't seen too many teams in the bottom half of the premiership playing for safety this season. There has certainly been much boredom and very little in the way of highlight when the top 6 have played each other, so I’m not sure splitting the league like that would serve anyone any good. The excitement this season has all been about the lower ranked teams more often than not taking it to the big boys.

Comment by MoeTheBarman 2011-05-19 20:29:18

Worst idea ever.

Comment by Tony C 2011-05-20 11:48:09

Interesting artcle.

As a fan of Rugby League I have seen a play-off system in action at the end of a Superleague season for many years, based initially on the Australian model of top-six involvement and easier routes (i.e. less games) being the reward for teams who finish higher in the regular season.

These are highly competitive, engaging games and for spectators, sponsors and Sky T.V. they have been a resounding success. However, both in the U.K. and Australia, the team finishing top in the regular season has often not gone on to win the Grand Final. It's often the team who has come through with a late-season surge of form (that old buzzword "momentum") who bags the big prize. This concerns me. If, as Ian suggests in his piece, the winning of the F.A Cup is becoming a footnote in a Premier League dominated world, it could ensue that under a play-off system the regular season champions would become equally devalued.

Comment by David from North Carolina 2011-05-20 13:08:17

As noted several times above, the problems in English football start with the consolidation of resources and power in the hands of several clubs and will not be fixed with a playoff system. To Tony C.'s point about playoff performance, I would note that in American soccer, there is absolutely no correlation between regular season performance and playoff success. Last season, the eighth-placed team in Division 2 won the playoffs--and hence were crowned "champions." And in the top flight, Major League Soccer, the playoff winners, the Colorado Rapids, had the lowest points total (along with the San Jose Earthquakes) of the eight teams that qualified for the playoffs. And this was not an unusual phenomenon. We see this every year.

While the playoffs in American soccer certainly give us surprise winners, the post-season competition rewards teams who hit their form in late season (or as we say, "get hot") and benefit from short-term luck. The regular season, consequently, is devalued to the point of being a six-month qualifying campaign for the playoffs.

One final point: This is America we're talking about, but the playoffs in the second division are a huge money-loser, with participating teams taking on extra travel expenses and seeing no really significant uptick in attendance. And in the top flight, last year's championship game was played before a stadium that was half-empty during the second half (the weather was poor, the soccer was dire and there was a local source of fan discontent, as well).

Comment by wal28 2011-05-20 14:40:14

I don't think you can view one season and say the football is getting less competitive. There is an article on this very site looking at how diverse the Romanian competition has become.

A few European leagues have tinkered with their system most recently the Dutch and the Belgian lges. The Dutch quickly dropped the majority of their play-offs now retaining only play-offs for one remaining Europa Lge berth. This wouldn't work in the Premiership has the Europa Lge is seen as a booby prize over here, to be avoided at all costs. The Belgian system is in its second season, and as a previous poster indicated isn't hugely appreciated.

The Brazilian lge went to a regular home and away format about 3 seasons ago after playing something similiar suggested in the article.

However, I think if the Premiership were to go for play-offs they should go the whole hog and follow the Mexcian model. Slim the lge down to 18 teams and play either home or away 17 matches. Split the lge into three pools, and the top two teams from each pool plus the best two not already qualified go through to playoffs. They do this in both Opening (Apertura) and Closing (Clasura), and it's rapid enough to ensure no-one gets to far away, and there is plenty of shake-up. The North Amercian Champions Lge contenders are decided by ranking the teams in a straight forward lge table that runs concurrently thus ensuring the best teams are put forward into the premier contintental competition.

In fact, why stop there, whilst we are exploring the realms of less probable ideas to take hold in English leage football...we could take on the Brazilian idea of regional tournaments before the national competition. So Aug-Dec we have 5 regional tournaments, thus spreading the wealth: Rochdale-Man Utd, Barnet-Arsenal, Hartlepool-Newcastle United with the finals culiminating at Christmas. Then from Jan to May the big-Premiership, I suggest the Englerao as a working title.

Comment by Bob8 2011-05-24 14:51:26

I agree the system has worked very well in rugby league. However, there are differences. The rugby league Super League has fewer games and one cup, compared to thirty-eight league games, two domestic cup competitions and European competitions. A team doing well in Europe, winning the play-offs and having a run in the domestic cups would find itself sorely over stretched.

Indeed, a team not qualifying for Europe and being knocked out in the third round of the FA Cup would be a good bet for the play-offs on the basis of their fresher legs.

What clearly, painfully clearly, has to happen is to reduce the number of teams in the Premier League to 18. That is if you want a better competition and improved England team. For cash, twenty might be better.

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