In many ways, it’s been a strange season. Flares, pitch invasions, and the throwing of objects at players have suddenly become the norm. Environmental activists attaching themselves to goalposts (on one occasion by the neck) provided a weird footnote.
In terms of the match statistics, nothing much has changed. The ever-widening financial disparity between the clubs makes the final league positions easy to predict. With the concept of a European Super League lurking in the background this should give the Premier League authorities some cause for concern.
First, the basic statistics. Interestingly, less than half the games (161) were home wins (42%). A total of 1,071 goals were scored, an average of 2.8 per match.
It would be inaccurate to say, of course, that the Premier League is devoid of competition. Those witnessing the season’s final day saw Liverpool challenge Manchester City for the title, Tottenham challenge Arsenal for fourth place, West Ham challenge West Ham for sixth place and Burnley and Leeds fighting desperately to avoid the dreaded drop into the Championship.
However, this disguises the impact that financial inequality has on results and league position.
According to the latest figures available, the combined revenue of the richest six clubs in the Premier League amounts to more than the revenues of the other 14 clubs put together. This allows the richest clubs to spend huge amounts on the best players and pay them exceedingly, and some would say obscenely, well for their services. In 2019-20, the six richest clubs paid their employees a total of £1.6b, more than the combined wages paid by the other 14 clubs. Manchester City’s £351m salary bill, the highest in the league, can be contrasted with Norwich’s £89m, the lowest. It is clear that in order to compete, some clubs are using a very high proportion of their revenues to pay wages. In fact, the wage bill of Leicester City, in 2019-20, was 5% more than the club’s revenue (Villa’s wage bill was 99% of revenue, West Ham’s 95% and Palace’s 93%).
To some extent, the impact of financial inequality on the results is there for all to see. The richest six clubs occupy the top six positions this season. The financially poorest clubs were relegated. There’s nothing new here, of course. In the 30-year history of the Premier League, only seven clubs have won the title and in 28 of those seasons one of the rich six were champions (the others were Blackburn and Leicester). Even more strikingly, in the same period, whilst 15 different clubs have finished in the top four at least once, 101 of the 120 places (84%) were occupied by the rich six clubs.
If we dig deeper into this season’s results, the impact of financial inequality on outcomes becomes even more stark. In the 168 matches played between the rich six and the other 14 clubs, 117 were won by the richer club. That is a 70% success rate. Only 24 of these matches (14%) were won by the poorer club. The six rich clubs scored 358 goals in these games against a paltry 129 scored against them. Even more significantly, 73 of the victories (almost half of the games played between the rich six and the other 14) were won by at least two clear goals. A total of 43 matches (26%) were won by at least three clear goals, and 22 (of the 168) by at least four clear goals.
The number of one-sided and uncompetitive games will only increase as the financial gap between clubs increases.
In terms of likely scenarios for the future, it is clear that the Premier League authorities are in a difficult position.
In scenario 1, the Premier League takes on board the need for a regulator and a much stricter hold on football finance in order to tackle inequality and make the league more competitive. They have resisted this approach so far. Indeed, since the failed European Super League breakaway, the Premier League has done everything it can to keep the rich six on board, the latest move being to allow for five substitutions next season. Greater financial equality, of course, will make the six rich clubs poorer and hinder their chances of success in European competitions. A European Super League might seem a preferable option.
In scenario 2, the Premier League resists calls to tackle financial inequality. This is likely to result in a decline in competitiveness and more one-sided matches. Critics of this interpretation make the point that support for football in England remains buoyant. All Premier League clubs still have attendances at, or close to, capacity. The problem is that match day revenue only constitutes around 12% of the revenue of Premier League clubs. The major pot of money (around 60%) comes from the broadcasters. It is unlikely that broadcasters will want to keep paying as much if the number of one-sided matches continues to rise. By contrast, the huge potential audiences for regular top European games will begin to look very attractive.
Ultimately, the concept of a European Super League will likely occur in the form of a much-expanded Champions League. The problem for the six rich English clubs (seven now that Newcastle has been bought by the Saudi state) is that only four of them can qualify for the Champions League. An expanded competition will rectify this. Critics of the European Super League proposals were outraged at the prospect of no relegation from it and promotion to it. Well, an expanded Champions League with the top six English teams qualifying for it would look no different.