More than a month into football’s stoppage for the coronavirus pandemic, the debate over whether or not — and how — to finish the European season has found no resolution as it becomes increasingly unlikely to play out remaining fixtures. While some have taken action to either end the season as is or void it entirely, UEFA as recently as Thursday maintained leagues should do all they can to complete the season.
The ideal scenario, should the pandemic situation permit it, is to have the currently suspended domestic competitions completed enabling football clubs to qualify for UEFA club competitions on sporting merit in their original format. Should this outcome not be possible, in particular due to calendar issues, it would be preferable that suspended domestic competitions would restart with a different format in a manner which would still facilitate clubs to qualify on sporting merit.
UEFA provided a lot of food for thought, and a few more questions. What exactly does “sporting merit” mean? What are they suggesting in terms of a “different format” to complete the season? One could interpret the statement as more confusion in an overwhelming time, and no one could blame that person. UEFA’s vagueness, though, allows for a lot of creativity as the football world is desperate to melt some stress.
After a brainstorming session in the Cartilage Free Captain writers’ room with Joel Wertheimer, I present to you a “different format” to finish the season: the Premier League Ladder, a test of athletic ability and coaching acumen and a solution for leagues, broadcasters, and a sports-deprived audience.
The Premier League Ladder would, in principle, follow a session of tennis ladder, where teams can only challenge the competitor ranked directly ahead. Play begins with the 20th place team challenging the 19th place team. If the 20th place team wins, it goes up the table and then challenges the 18th place team. If the 19th place team wins, it challenges the 18th place team; the 20th place team is out of the game. The ladder continues until play goes all the way to the first place team, where we would run out of challenges.
The coaching staff is responsible for determining the challenge, and selecting the player on the team best suited to completing the challenge. For the coaching staff, the only restrictions are that challenges must be athletic and must be suited to a home with limited space and equipment. Teams can challenge others to a push up competition, for example, or a jumprope competition, though they can get more creative than that.
Coaches will also be limited to player selection; no player can be selected more than once. (Exceptions in the case of injuries will be made.)
This system does not render the previously played games useless, because those matches will be used to rank the teams before play begins. To respect UEFA’s request of “sporting merit,” which some have interpreted as points per game, the teams will be ranked that way to start the ladder. Here’s what the Premier League table would look like:
The Premier League’s typical tiebreaks of goal difference and goals scored were used in the case of ties in a points per game tie. This table is not very different from the current standings, though Sheffield United swapped places with Wolverhampton Wanderers, and Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur did the same. That means the first challenge will see Norwich City challenge Aston Villa.
The system allows lower ranked teams to put themselves in a good position to actually succeed, but higher ranked teams will receive a further advantage to reward them for their work before the stoppage. Higher ranked teams will be allowed to select players on the other team who cannot compete based on the point advantage pre-pandemic. In the case of our first challenge, Villa’s four point advantage means Dean Smith’s team can pick four players from Daniel Farke’s squad that cannot compete in the challenge.
Higher ranked teams will be limited to excluding five players from eligibility if the point gap is larger than that. A team with better points per game than the opponent but the same amount of points will be able to exclude one player from the lower ranked team’s squad (this would be the case if Wolves challenged Sheffield). Teams only ranked ahead on tiebreaks would not be able to exclude players from the opposing team.
The lower ranked team must publicly share the challenge no later than 24 hours before the matchup. The higher ranked team has until two hours before the match to announce excluded players, and both teams have until an hour before the match to announce the player who will participate.
Though the example I use is the Premier League, it is easily adaptable so other leagues can create their own ladders. Additionally, the plan will be a relief to broadcasters everywhere — they will get new sports content to air. (That said, they will likely undergo an annoying training period so players can livestream accordingly.) Though it will not match revenue streams for teams if they were normally hosting supporters in stadiums, it will certainly create a better financial position for all. Players will benefit after spending a month getting creative in their homes while attempting to stay fit. Out of work sports reporters will have a reason to get paid again. Finally, a large global audience will have fresh competition to enjoy, restoring some amount of normalcy in unprecedented times.