None of this is supposed to happen anymore.
Liverpool and Manchester City have traded uppercuts for eight grueling months. Neither one has missed a punch and now we’re left with two of the best teams in Premier League history separated by just one point with just one game to go. It’s the closest title race since Sergio AGUEROOOOOO’s 94-minute winner against Queens Park Rangers on matchday 38 in 2012; it’s also worth noting that both of this year’s championship chasers surpassed that City side’s points total weeks ago.
If Man City beat Brighton on the South Coast, they will win a second straight league title. Anything less and a Liverpool win at home to Wolves would mean that Jurgen Klopp’s side are champions for the first time ever in the Premier League era. It’s a title race unlike any other — it’s literally the only thing at stake on Sunday as the three relegation spots have been settled, as has the jostling for Champions League and Europa League qualification — but it’s unique to England.
In Germany, no one’s going to confuse Borussia Dortmund or Bayern Munich with an all-time great side but Dortmund held onto first place from the end of September through the beginning of April. A stunning 5-0 victory over Dortmund moved Bayern back into first last month, but they’re clinging to a tenuous four-point lead with a pair of remaining games against third-place RB Leipzig and fourth-place Eintracht Frankfurt.
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In the Champions League, Real Madrid, the three-time defending champs, were knocked out by little old Ajax in the Round of 16. Cristiano Ronaldo’s Juventus befell the same fate in the quarterfinals, while Bayern Munich were also sent packing in the first knockout round. Then Liverpool, incredibly, toppled Barcelona in the semis and Tottenham, incredibly, did the same to Ajax.
Given the growing inequality at the top of the European game, where wealth begets success begets more wealth begets more success in a cycle with no end in sight, uncertainty seemed like it had become a thing of the past.
Will anyone outside Europe’s elite teams get a shot at league glory in the future?
Coming into this season, Juventus had won seven Serie A titles in a row. Bayern’s streak was at five. PSG were winners of five of the past six Ligue 1 championships, and Barcelona had lifted the La Liga trophy in three of the past four. Somehow, none of them were even the most dominant team in Europe; no, that was Manchester City, who’d won the Premier League with 100 total points and a 19-point gap from second place. On top of that, the Champions League, a competition partially designed to create randomness through its abbreviated knockout-round structure, had been won by either Bayern, Real, or Barcelona in seven of the previous eight editions.
It might not look like it, but despite two down-to-the-wire title races and Champions League that will produce a champion that hasn’t won since at least 2005, not much has changed, although maybe it should. Ultimately, things are still pretty imbalanced in Europe’s top leagues.
“The general trend is that weaker leagues have always been uncompetitive — sometimes due to political/socioeconomic reasons, sometimes due to wealthy owners. Sometimes the top team has managed to reinforce their dominance by playing in Europe,” Omar Chaudhuri, head of football intelligence at the consultancy 21st Club, told me. “But the Big Five leagues are moving more and more towards competitive inequality, to the extent now that they’re the most imbalanced leagues.”
At the end of 2018, the CIES Football Observatory released a report detailing Europe’s growing competitive inequality over the past 10 seasons. The study found that among the Big Five leagues, the percentage of points won by the champion and the top three teams is increasing. Winners took an average of 73 percent of the total points in 2009; that number jumped all the way up to 83 percent last season, while the top three teams increased their share from 70 to 73 percent over that same span. The imbalance also shows up on a game-to-game level. The study found that the average goal-differential per game in the Big Five leagues increased from 1.294 to 1.408 since 2009, while the percentage of games won by at least three goals rose from 14 to 18 percent.
“I think on the whole we should expect to see the same teams competing in title races,” Chaudhuri said, “though the likelihood is that each year you’ll probably have at least one competitive title race, as one team had a bad year and a rival team has a good one.”
That’s pretty much what’s happened in England and in Germany this season. Liverpool’s expected goal differential, according to Opta, is 20 goals lower than their actual goal differential: plus-45 to plus-65. And Dortmund are about 14 goals ahead of their underlying numbers: plus-19.9 to plus-34. Meanwhile, City (plus-59.3 xGD, plus-69 GD) and Bayern (plus-55.7 xGD, plus-52 GD) have significantly better underlying numbers than the teams chasing them, but they haven’t been as efficient in converting and preventing the shots they create and concede.
Most title-winning teams do it on the back of some hot finishing and great goalkeeping, but expected goals are a better predictor of future success than, well, goals. And even with Liverpool and Dortmund pushing their performances to their absolute limits, it still might not be enough.
“We can expect season-long title races in England, where the financial gaps between the wealthiest teams aren’t as marked as [they are] in the other top European leagues,” Dr. Raffaele Poli, head of the CIES Football Observatory, told me. “In Spain, there are also two very rich teams, Barcelona and Real Madrid, while there is no more real competition in Germany, France and Italy. There is some hope in Italy if Milan and Inter recover some of their past glory, but Bayern in Germany and Paris Saint-Germain in France have no real rival in the current situation.”
Of course, recurring dominance isn’t unique to soccer. The Golden State Warriors have won three of the past four NBA titles. The Los Angeles Dodgers have won the National League West in six consecutive seasons and the NL title in the past two. And the New England Patriots have won three of the NFL’s past five Super Bowls. Those leagues are all doing just fine.
“People love to hate on a big fish — the Yankees in baseball, Bayern in German football,” Chris Anderson, a soccer industry strategy and investment consultant based in London, told me. “Stadiums are full when the big boys come to town. I think sports economists would say that having a big fish by itself isn’t bad, but it’s bad if the overall competitive balance becomes really skewed so that you never have challengers to the top teams.”
Barcelona have now won four of the past five La Liga titles. Juventus have extended their streak to nine consecutive Serie A crowns. PSG just clinched Ligue 1 title No.6 in seven seasons. If Bayern hold onto their lead over Dortmund, they’ll make it six Bundesligas in six, while a win on Sunday over Brighton will give Man City the two highest point totals in Premier League history, in consecutive years. The home-and-away, play-everyone-twice structure seems like the best way to determine the best team but it’s certainly not the best way to ensure excitement and unpredictability — at least, not anymore.
“The formats and structures we’re used to are essentially either directly or indirectly from the Victorians, 150 years ago,” Chaudhuri said. “There is a fair argument that these formats are no longer fit for purpose, and that we need to find new ways of ensuring games remain entertaining, in the context of everything else we have and enjoy in the 21st Century, and maintaining competitive balance within and across leagues.”
There are smaller leagues around Europe trying something different with regard to format. In Poland’s first division, there are 16 teams. They play 30 games and then split up into two divisions made up of the top and bottom eight. Everyone keeps their points totals. Then, the top eight all play each other once more and the team with the most points wins the title, while the same happens with the bottom eight; teams with the two lowest totals are relegated. In Belgium, 16 teams contest a 30-game season and then the top six separate out into a mini-league. Their point totals are halved, they play each other twice and whoever has the most points at the end of it is crowned champion.
Both of those systems do a nice job of valuing season-long performance while adding in some end-of-the-year volatility. Wouldn’t you rather watch Serie A championship round, rather than Juventus playing another meaningless game in mid-April?
However, the forces that create the inequality in the first place are the same ones that will likely prevent any structural fixes from happening. “Are attendances down?” Anderson said. “Are viewership figures down systematically? If not, why change?”