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The Case for a Champions League Playoff in the Premier League

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There's still two weeks left in the season. They will probably suck. Here's how to fix that.

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When you first come to European soccer as an American, there are things you have to get used to—the lack of a playoff to determine the champion is one of them. Promotion and relegation is another. And at first, if you're like me, you probably like all of this. One of the biggest problems in American sports, that the draft system incentivizes tanking, simply doesn't exist in European soccer because of the specter of relegation. Likewise, the problem with elite teams coasting through the season till they reach the playoffs is also dealt with as a league-based model means that every match matters in a way that no American sport save college football can match.

That said, after a few seasons, you realize there are still problems with the European system. First off, teams that are good enough to avoid relegation but not good enough to realistically chase European glory basically have no exciting objective to aim for save winning the increasingly marginal FA Cup, chasing a Europa League spot, or simply maintaining their Premier League status for another year and, with it, access to the enormous TV revenue. The result is that by mid March as many as half a dozen teams may already be coasting to season's end. Further, by late April all of the interesting league battles may be over. We still have 2-3 games left in the season, but the champion is already settled. The top four is almost certainly settled, barring a shock collapse by City or Arsenal. The relegation battle is still on as three teams via for 17th and, with it, Premier League survival. But if you hit season's end and the only intriguing race still in play is limited to Norwich City, Sunderland, and Newcastle that is... not great.

At its worst, this reality can take previously fun teams like Michael Laudrup's Swansea or Alan Pardew's Crystal Palace and turn them into unwatchable messes as they reach relegation safety by mid-to-late February and coast through the rest of the season in relegation form.

So how do you fix this problem? Simple: You give those established Premier League clubs who aren't part of the Sky Six (and don't have a horseshoe permanently affixed to their hindquarters) something to play for. Make the top six or seven places in the table worth something. If there are six or seven places at the top of the table that mean something and three places at the bottom that mean something, then the odds of getting a lot of lame duck late-season fixtures is dramatically lowered as, in a typical season, 11-13 teams will have something to play for well into April. How do you do this? You create a playoff system for the final Champions League place.

How would a Champions League playoff work?

There are two obvious systems which value slightly different things. The one you prefer will depend on what you value in sports. The first option would be a three team playoff. In this system, the fifth and sixth placed teams in the league would play a one game playoff (either at Wembley or at the home of the fifth place finisher) with the winner advancing to a second playoff game with the fourth placed league team. The winner of that advances to the best-placed playoff round in the Champions League. This system rewards the fourth place team for being better in the league while still adding excitement to the end of the season and making sixth place in the league a valuable slot to finish in.

The other option would be a playoff modeled after the Championship's promotion playoff. In this system, the teams finishing 4-7 in the league would play a two round playoff with the winner going to the Champions League best-placed playoff round in August.

There are a few ways this could work: They could directly mimic the Championship by having a two-legged playoff in the semifinals followed by a one-leg finale at Wembley. Another option would be to reward the fourth and fifth place teams by giving them home-field advantage in a one-leg semifinal match followed by a final to be played at the home of the best-placed team still in the playoff.

While this system does not reward league performance as much, it does expand the playoff field by one, which creates further excitement near the end of season as teams jockey for position and chase those playoff positions in the table. (This approach also has greater appeal for fans who love cinderella stories as one would typically expect the Sky Six, Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United, and Tottenham, to occupy the top six places in the table. Including a fourth team in the playoff certainly opens the door for Everton, but could also give teams like Southampton, West Ham, Stoke City, or Swansea something to chase also.)

What playoff matchups would still be in play this season if we used this system?

At time of writing, here's how the table looks:

4. Manchester City 64 pts
5. Manchester United 60 pts (one game in hand)
6. West Ham 59 pts (one game in hand)
7. Southampton 57 pts
8. Liverpool 55 pts (one game in hand)

In our first playoff system, West Ham would have the inside track on the final playoff spot and a date with Manchester United in the first round of the Premier League's Champions League playoff. The winner of Manchester United v West Ham would likely face Manchester City in the final.

This means we could have a final weekend Manchester derby (perhaps played in the TV slot just before the Champions League final?) to determine the final Champions League playoff slot.

Another possibility is that Liverpool could get hot in their final three games, setting up a Liverpool-Manchester United first round with the winner playing Manchester City.

The second system is equally intriguing: We'd be looking at semifinal ties between Manchester City and Southampton (fresh off Southampton's weekend pasting of the Citizens) and Manchester United and West Ham. Liverpool would also be lurking just outside the top seven.

What kind of playoffs would we have had the past five seasons?

When you look at the last five Premier League seasons, the appeal of a playoff becomes even more apparent.

Last season, the table looked like this at season's end:

4. Manchester United, 70 pts
5. Tottenham Hotspur, 64 pts
6. Liverpool, 62 pts
7. Southampton, 60 pts

So in the first system, you'd have a Tottenham-Liverpool first round with the winner advancing to face Manchester United. The second system would have semifinal ties between Manchester United and Southampton and Tottenham and Liverpool.

For the 2013-14 season, the table looked like this:

4. Arsenal, 79 pts
5. Everton, 72 pts
6. Tottenham, 69 pts
7. Manchester United, 64 pts

So the first system gives us a first round of Everton v Spurs with the winner facing Arsenal. That's right: a North London Derby with a spot in the Champions League on the line.

The second system gives us semifinal ties between Arsenal and United and Everton and Spurs as United try desperately to salvage a season marred by David Moyes' failed attempt to replace Sir Alex Ferguson.

For the 2012-13 season, the table looked like this:

4. Arsenal, 73 pts
5. Tottenham, 72 pts
6. Everton, 63 pts
7. Liverpool, 61 pts

The first system gives us Spurs v Everton in the first round with the winner facing Arsenal—so another potential NLD for the Champions League. The second system gives us Arsenal v Liverpool and Spurs v Everton, in which case we could have a North London Derby or a Merseyside Derby with the Champions League place on the line.

For 2011-12, here's the table:

4. Tottenham, 69 pts
5. Newcastle, 65 pts
6. Chelsea, 64 pts
7. Everton, 56 pts

This season, which I trust most Spurs fans have blocked out of their memory, is of course the one when Spurs crashed out of the Champions League despite finishing fourth due to Chelsea's winning the Champions League.

First system: First round of Newcastle v Chelsea with the winner facing Spurs. Second system: Spurs v Everton and Newcastle v Chelsea.

Finally, here's the 2010-11 table:

4. Arsenal, 68 pts
5. Tottenham, 62 pts
6. Liverpool, 58 pts
7. Everton, 54 pts

First system: Tottenham v Liverpool with the winner facing Arsenal (another NLD possibility). Second system: Arsenal v Everton and Tottenham v Liverpool, so another possibility of an NLD or Merseyside Derby to determine who gets the final Champions League place.

There are other intriguing possibilities with a playoff.

In a league system where a team's position is based on its performance over 38 games played over nine months, there's not a great deal of room for randomness. There is still some, as there is almost always a major race decided by one or two points that leave supporters on the wrong side of the margin having nightmares about that one game that got away from them. (Spurs supporters are now seeing the Robert Huth header as it loops into the goal. In a different world, Leicester City fans might be having nightmares about Danny Welbeck's late header.) But on the whole, the four teams that qualify for the Champions League are nearly always the four best teams.

This is why, going into this season, England has sent only six different clubs to the group stage of the Champions League in the past 15 years. That will change next season, of course, as Leicester City join the club, but the point is it's still a very small club. When you consider the major financial perks that come with Champions League qualification and the added power on the transfer market, this can reinforce the divide that already exists between haves and have-nots in the Premier League.

A playoff increases the possibility that teams outside the Sky Six would get to the Champions League. If you review the list above, you'll see that West Ham, Southampton, Newcastle, and Everton all make appearances in the top seven over the past five seasons. It's possible that one or more of these teams would have reached the Champions League under a playoff system. And if that happens, all kinds of interesting "what ifs?" start to pop up. What if David Moyes' gets Everton to the Champions League a couple times? How does that change Everton's status as a club? What if Southampton catch fire in the playoffs last season and get into this year's Champions League? How does that change Louis Van Gaal's status at United and what United does in the transfer market over the summer?

Of course, if one of those also-rans cracks into the Champions League one season, that means a bigger club drops out. In recent years, the likeliest candidate for that is Arsenal. So what happens to Arsenal (and, more to the point, Arsene Wenger) if the Gunners miss out on the Champions League for one season? Depending on when Arsenal missed out, that could also have made their recent big signings of Mesut Ozil or Alexis Sanchez impossible as neither player would move to a club not playing in the Champions League. Spurs fans might wonder what would've happened if the first Andre Villas-Boas team qualified for the Champions League. Does Gareth Bale stay for another year? What happens to the now notorious seven summer signings? And what happens to AVB?

There are a ton of possibilities here, which means a playoff system is especially attractive if you love chaos and something like NFL-style parity in sport.

What are the drawbacks to a playoff?

Obviously there are a number of potential problems with a playoff system. Here's a short list:

  • First, the UEFA coefficient rating is a major concern for England right now and so the idea of making it more likely that smaller clubs qualify for Europe may not be particularly attractive to the FA as that could make it harder for England to maintain its fourth place in the competition.
  • End of season playoff fixtures could conflict with FA Cup fixtures, either as they compete for time at Wembley or, more likely, as teams would get a fixture pileup if they make the playoffs and go deep into the FA Cup.
  • To expand on that point, the Premier League Champions League playoff could be the end of the FA Cup, which by itself may be enough to sink the proposal. The combination of fixture congestion and incentivizing more elite clubs to ignore the FA Cup could be a fatal blow to the once-storied competition.
  • A less likely possibility, but one that would have arisen during our five-year sample, is that a team could be in the playoff places and go deep into the Champions League or Europa League. If, for example, Chelsea advanced to the Champions League via winning the competition, what would that mean for the playoff? Given that UEFA now allows five clubs from one member nation into the Champions League, this is less of a problem now because, presumably, you could easily expand the playoff field by one team or, if Chelsea won the playoff and the Champions League, reward the Champions League place to the playoff runner up, just as we currently do with a Europa League place to the FA Cup runner-up in some situations.
  • Finally, clubs may object to lengthening the season as this could create schedule conflicts with international tournaments that typically happen in the summer and could cut into time that could be spent either giving the squad a rest or going on a lucrative post-season tour. Granted, a seventh place team that makes the Champions League is going to make way more money that way than they would by touring Australia in late May. But if you cancel your post-season tour and crash out in the playoffs, you could be out a fair bit of money.
For all those reasons, this idea is unlikely to ever be anything more than the Premier League version of Bill Simmons' Entertaining as Hell playoff idea for the NBA. That said, as we look toward the penultimate weekend of this Premier League campaign and realize that the most consequential games involve Norwich, Sunderland, Newcastle (and Aston Villa!) it's not unreasonable to wonder how we might make the spring run-in a bit more competitive.