How Competitive is the Premier League Really?

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The major objection to the proposed European Super League was that it was anti-competitive. The same teams would compete in it year after year and there would be no promotion or relegation. It was the super-rich clubs buying their continued success by excluding all other not so rich clubs.

Well, we can argue whether the European Super League would lack a competitive edge. Yes, it would prevent a surprise package from upsetting the apple cart. There would be no chance, for instance, of a Leicester City emerging to upset the established order as they did in the Premier League in 2015-16. On the other hand, arguably, the games, between clubs with similar resources, would be super competitive. There would be no way of knowing whether Manchester City or Chelsea or Barcelona or Real Madrid would eventually prevail from one year to the next.

More to the point, pundits contrasted the proposed European Super League with what they perceived to be the hyper-competitive Premier League. Well, how true is that claim? Yes, there is promotion to, and relegation from, the Premier League. On the other hand, many promoted teams go straight back down and even those who retain their status usually have little chance of finishing in the top half of the table. Yes, there is the Leicester City story but isn’t that the exception that proves the rule? More to the point, there is no chance that the very rich clubs will be relegated.

So, how competitive is the Premier League in reality? Are we being conned by those whose interests are served by furthering the claim that the Premier league is the ‘best league in the world’? Well, one way of assessing this is to analyse how far money is a predictor of results. In other words, what percentage of the results can be predicted merely be knowing who has the most money? Intuitively, we would expect the richest clubs to prevail most of the time. But what exactly is the figure and at what point would we want to say that results are just too easy to predict? If 70% of matches can be predicted by money alone is that sufficiently competitive? What about 80% or 90%?

On the eve of the new season, I will attempt to calculate how much money talks. What I am talking about here is the financial inequality in the Premier League itself. I accept that the financial gap between the Premier League and the rest of the football pyramid in England is probably a greater worry. I am also making no claims about the legitimacy of financial inequality. There are undoubtedly problems with the origins and purpose of some of the foreign money coming into the English game, and it is suggested that some clubs pay lip service to the rules of financial fair play. But let us assume that the financial inequality that does exist is merely a product of healthy things such as the size of a club’s fan base, the success of marketing departments and so on.

Club revenues are the best guide to financial inequality. We might also consider transfer outlays too but it is the capacity to fund transfers, rather than the actual outlay, that is key. So, for example, it is regularly pointed out that Liverpool have achieved considerable success in recent years despite a modest net spend on transfers. The point to make here is that, although in recent years Liverpool bought very well and did not spend over the odds, had these transfers not worked the club would have been able to invest in others. Wages paid are a better indicator of financial performance than transfer spend. Look at PSG, for instance, who did not have to spend one Euro in a transfer fee for Messi but they are no doubt paying him a lucrative wage, way beyond the capacity of the vast majority of clubs.

Financial revenues vary from year to year and have in the past couple of seasons been hit by the pandemic. Nevertheless, they have remained very consistent for a number of years now. A league table of finance for the 2019-20 season is as follows:

  1. Manchester United £509m

2. Liverpool £489.9m

3. Manchester City £478.4m

4. Chelsea £407.4m

5. Tottenham Hotspur £391.9m

6. Arsenal £344.5m

7. Everton £185.9m

8. Newcastle United £152.6m

9. Leicester City £150m

10. Crystal Palace £142.4m

11. West Ham £139.5m

12. Burnley £133.8m

13. Brighton £132.9m

14. Wolves £132.6m

15. Southampton £126.6m

16. Norwich £119.3m

17. Aston Villa £112.6m

18. Leeds United £54.2m

19. Watford

20. Brentford

These figures are not entirely accurate as an indicator of the resources available to Premier League clubs this season. For instance, Leeds were still in the Championship in 2019-20 and Aston Villa had only been in the Premier League for one season. They also do not take into account the purchase of Newcastle United by wealthy Saudi backers. This will start to have an impact in the second half of the season after the January transfer window.

What is clear is the massive financial advantage possessed by the rich six (soon to become seven) whose incomes combined were more than the rest of the clubs in the league put together. The current transfer window (summer 2021), where half of the super rich clubs have already spent a considerable amount on players, is an indication that the financial resources available to them are being put to good use.

Let us see how far this financial advantage is converted into success on the pitch.

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