Sunday, May 4, 2008

Should the Premiership Have Playoffs?

There are those out there who believe the answer to the question is a resounding "no"; in fact, the vast majority of people I talk to are firmly against the concept of playoffs in the Premiership.

I hear the same arguments all the time: "Every game means something in the Premiership; it's not like the regular season in American sports, which counts for nothing" or "No, we don't need playoffs. The best team at the end of 38 games wins, and that's that" or "No, it goes against the tradition of the league".

You've all talked to people about this. It's a debate that pops up every now and again and gets shot down by the mass media every single time. They give you the same reasons for why a playoff structure shouldn't exist.

It's about time, though, that you heard the reasons FOR why the most exciting league in the world should have playoffs at the end of the year. Later on in this post, I'll describe my perfect system and explain how it would work.

1. First off, the "every game means something" argument is complete and utter rubbish. A certain host of World Soccer Daily feeds the audience that cliché every time when ripping the MLS and saying how it will never be more than a third-tier league, much less as good as the Premiership.

I'll tell you what, folks, that argument is invalid. By mid-February of each year, the only teams playing for anything are the teams fighting it out for the title (usually two or three), trying to avoid relegation (usually two or three), and the teams contesting the UEFA Cup spots (usually two or three). That leaves anywhere between 11-14 teams that have, for all intents and purposes, packed it in for the season with two and a half months of games left to play.

Think about it. When's the last time you saw West Ham and Tottenham actually play with any sense of urgency this season? Teams like Middlesbrough, Blackburn, Manchester City, and Newcastle were all confined to mid-table mediocrity a while ago. The whole glut of mid-table teams make up the majority of teams in the league, and they go overlooked because they're not playing competitive games for the last quarter of the season.

What motivation do those teams have to show up every week? They're just playing out the string, which isn't necessarily for their fault, and it's a disservice to the loyal fans who have to pay exorbitant ticket prices to watch flat, stale performances at the end of the year.

Having a playoff system would negate this. Teams would be fighting it out tooth and nail until the last day to get into the playoffs, and it would prohibit managers from playing second-string teams at the end like they do now.

2. Let's face it, the Premiership is in need of an electric shock-type revitalization. The same four teams finish in the top four every single year and only two or three of them have any hope of winning the title in any given season because the other/s are down, though still good enough to finish in a Champions League place.

Granted, most fans of the Premiership are fans of those four clubs, but it's extremely boring and predictable for the other 16 teams (80%) of the league. The same teams shouldn't be at the top every season. It has become a huge accomplishment to finish 5th these days and it's almost unheard of for any team to break the stranglehold of the "Big Four". When the most exciting race every year is at the bottom, and not the top, you know something is wrong.

Making the playoffs would become a more reasonable feat for clubs and provide something for the other 16 teams in the league to shoot for. We know that because of economics, the other 16 in the Premiership will never reach the status of the "Big Four", but anything could happen in the playoffs and at least for one season, the smaller clubs could enjoy a triumph over the big boys.

3. As I just touched on briefly, it gives the little guys a chance and an escape from perennial mediocrity. In a typical season, Middlesbrough's 29th game may be basically meaningless and there would very likely be a small crowd at the Riverside. With a playoff system, though, those three points would be huge because Middlesbrough would be no sure thing to make the playoffs and they'd need every single point they can get. This, in turn, would create a better atmosphere because the game has that much more meaning. Mid-table teams would have their own little race to get in instead of settling for where they are and shutting it down with multiple games to go.

Instead of playing out the string in front of small crowds with little enthusiasm, you're playing to make the playoffs and get a shot at one of the big boys, with one game at your field if you make it to the quarterfinals. Playoffs ensure that the teams fighting to get there don't take games off and it eliminates the apathy that we see at the end of the season nowadays.

4. The intensity, atmosphere, and passion that would be found in the playoffs would be great -- think Liverpool's Champions League nights at Anfield. If you watched their game today against City, sure, there was some chanting, but I couldn't count the times I saw close-up shots of the crowd and there were so many quiet people with their hands on their chins, just sitting there and watching the game. I don't want to see that, and we wouldn't if there was the possibility of playoffs after the regular season.

If you've ever seen any playoff games in professional sports here in the US, everything just goes up a notch. The players have more of a bounce in their step, the fans are louder, the stadiums are raucous, and the game itself is just a better one. It's hard to qualify in words unless you've seen it, but trust me on this one, you'd rather have playoffs than watch Blackburn's last 10 games of the season with nothing to play for after that.

OK, so, here's my playoff proposal:

• 12 teams (1-12 after 38 regular season league games) based on points

• Top three teams automatically go to the Champions League, with the fourth CL place and the Premiership trophy given to the team that wins the playoffs. If that team finished in the top three during the regular season, then the CL place would be given to the playoff runner-up. This provides incentive to finish in the top three after 38 games, as well as give something meaningful to the playoff winner.

• Top four teams get a "first-round bye”, with team #5 playing #12, #6-#11, #7-#10, and #8-#9. After that first round, team #1 would play the lowest remaining seed, team #2 would play the second-lowest remaining seed, then team #3, then team $4 playing the highest remaining seed in the quarterfinal round.

• All first-round games are one-offs, with the games being played at the higher seeds’ stadiums. No away goals rule, extra time is two 15-minute halves (golden goal), and then PK’s.

• All quarterfinal round games are two-legged ties, with the higher seed hosting the second leg. No away goals rule, extra time is two 15-minute halves (golden goal), and then PK’s.

• For the semifinals, the highest remaining seed would play the lowest remaining seed, and then the two middle teams would play. Again, two-legged ties; higher seed has second leg at their ground. No away goals rule, extra time is two 15-minute halves (golden goal), and then PK’s

• The two winners of the semifinals would play in the final, a one-off game at the venue of the higher seed. No away goals rule, extra time is two 15-minute halves (golden goal), and then PK’s.

How would this work? Well, the weekend after the season ends, the first round would start. Two of the games would take place Saturday, and then the other two would be played Sunday.

The quarterfinals would begin the next midweek, with the Sunday winners playing their top four opponents on Wednesday and the Saturday winners doing the same on Tuesday. For the second leg, the teams playing on Tuesday would go at it again on Saturday, and the teams playing on Wednesday would finish their tie on Sunday.

The semifinals would follow the same model, with the winners of the Wednesday/Sunday games playing the next Wednesday/Sunday, and the winners of the Tuesday/Saturday games playing the next Tuesday/Saturday.

The final would then be held at the highest remaining seed on the Saturday after the semifinals conclude.

All in all, it would add on a month to the end of the season while giving the teams involved an adequate amount of rest.

You can argue that the teams who have already clinched playoff spots will simply rest players towards the end of the year like they do now, and I understand that to a degree. However, the battle for seeding and having the second leg at home or the one-off game at home, as well as the fight for the three automatic Champions League spots, should negate managers from doing that.

Look at the interest that the playoffs in England's lower leagues have gotten. It's a priceless moment to see teams win promotion at Wembley. The two-legged semifinals are great and are nearly always sold out, which isn't the case for many other games during the course of the year at the grounds of some of these teams. Teams that still have had good seasons are given a lifeline to actually win something instead of settling for finishing in the middle of the table and getting another crack at it in the next year.

Let me know what you guys think. I'm fully aware that this will probably never happen, but it's just an idea to create more passion and excitement from fans and teams in a league that has become fairly stale in recent years.


Anonymous said...

Other than the American MLS no first division in the world has playoffs. None.

Even MLS has recently de-emphasized their playoffs by giving the winner of the league in the regular season an automatic entry into the North American Champions League and the Superliga competition.

The MLS playoffs now simply exist as a cup competition but not truly a championship.

In Europe playoffs don't exist except in second divisions.

Anonymous said...

Of all of your idiotic posts this is the most idiotic and childish.

This is precisely why Americans are unqualified to speak to anything about football.

Anonymous said...

Do not pay attention to this prat.

A teenage Martin Samuel wannabe.

Michael said...

Gentlemen, since you were cowardly enough to leave your identities as anonymous, I'll have to assume that you are just as "childish" and "prats" like me.

To the first anonymous commenter:

You're wrong. You just are. The Dutch FIRST DIVISION (the Eredivisie) has a playoff system for their Champions League, UEFA Cup, and relegation spots). Is Holland in Europe? Yes.

The Mexican league has playoffs, and so do many South American leagues in some form or another. Is South American and Mexico in the world? Yes.

OK, one down.

To the second anonymous commenter:

Americans are unqualified? Really? Where's England going to be this summer? They couldn't even qualify for their own continental championship against the likes of such powerhouses as Andorra, Estonia, and Macedonia. The US walks their championship nearly every time. Who just scored this weekend to possibly keep his team in the Premiership? An American, Brian McBride. Ethnicity and what country you're from has nothing to do with being "qualified".

To the third commenter:

No offense, but I really don't even know or care who Martin Samuel is. I know he's a journalist, but I've never read any of his stuff and I don't know what media outlet (newspaper, TV, etc.) he works for. To call me a "wannabe" of someone I don't even really know is foolish; actually, to call me a "wannabe" at all is "childish" and "idiotic".

Thanks for your feedback, though, fellas. It was great to prove each of you wrong and it made me smile all day just thinking about it.

Michael said...

Oh, and to the first anonymous commenter:

READ MY PROPOSAL AGAIN!! MLS hasn't de-emphasized their playoffs at all, that's still how you win the MLS Cup and how can you qualify for cup competitions here. My proposal is the same, where the Premiership title would go to the playoff winner, as well as one CL spot and the two (or three) UEFA Cup spots. Finishing in the top three in the regular season automatically would get you into the CL under my concept.

Read my proposal again, you muppet, before you spout your mouth off about things you obviously can't comprehend.

Kartik said...

You guys can bash this idea all you want and I am usually very critical of MLS as some recent posts on my website indicate, posts now being discredited by the legion of MLS apologists over at Big Soccer, BUT:

Last season the MLS lucked out and got a game on the very last game of the regular season between the two teams fighting for the last playoff spot. The game was placed last on the calender because it also featured the two biggest MLS signings of the year. David Beckham, for the hype and Blanco for the substance and his ability to bring Mexican and Club America fans to MLS once and for all.

MLS has in its thirteen year history provided one boring match after another with some moments of brilliance in between but generally not the sort of gripping excitement European or Mexican football provides.

This game however was brilliant, and as gripping as any match all year long in football, other than Iraq’s Asian Cup triumph which super ceded all.. Toyota Park was over flowing and loud as could be. Fire fans stood and sang the whole match and game ended with a stoppage time goal by John Thorrington, late of Man U and Bolton which saw the Fire through.

Without a playoffs system that game would have been a completely meaningless last weekend game where the park may have been half empty, with two teams that like many of their counterparts in the PL would have checked out on the season.

Inspite of tradition, a case can be made for playoffs in this sport.

Kartik said...

As Michael has pointed out, the first anonymous poster is DEAD wrong.

I've been living in an alternate reality when I've watched the Mexican League playoffs for 20 years now.

Brazil? They have playoffs.

Australia? They have playoffs.

MLS does have playoffs as you noted and they are somewhat de-emphasized as you noted but that because of pressure from snobs like you who don't understand the game has to be different in different parts of the world to succeed and flourish.