Andrea Agnelli was looking at remodelling the footballing calendar. It may yet entail promoting clubs into an expanded Champions League on grounds of historical achievement, flouting sporting integrity and flying in the face of concepts of a meritocracy to give some of the additional four places to those who, conveniently, happen to be big, well-supported and whose presence tends to boost television rights. Then the chairman of both Juventus and the European Club Association seemed to turn his attention to reducing the Premier League. Clubs in England, he noted, can play 53 domestic games, compared to just 43 in Germany.
“We do think that currently, for competitive balance purposes, 20 teams in leagues - it's not just the big leagues, but in many leagues - there are too many,” he said.
The temptation is to suggest a 20-team Serie A has insufficient competitive balance, given that Juventus have won nine consecutive Scudetti in a time when five clubs have been champions of England, or that Ligue 1 lacks enough, given that Paris Saint-Germain have won seven of the last eight league titles. Or perhaps to argue that the Bundesliga’s status as an 18-club league scarcely brought more competitive balance when Bayern won the title eight years in a row, often by large margins. If each was insufficiently competitive too often, it was in part a product of Champions League revenues.
And the point could be made that, with fewer teams, leagues such as Greece’s, Ukraine’s and Scotland’s are scarcely bywords for competitive balance. The chances are, however, that Agnelli was not thinking of any of them. His greater wish was to clear more of the calendar for Champions League games.
It is not English exceptionalism to say that the extra clubs, the ones Agnelli seems to suggest should just be demoted to give the superpowers to play each other, contribute much. Sheffield United may be dismissed as one of the worst teams in Premier League history now, but they have still won at Old Trafford. Last season, they beat Arsenal, Chelsea and Tottenham and went unbeaten in London.
Perhaps, as they came ninth then, they were not who Agnelli would have packed off back to the Championship. But consider their peers. West Brom may have been largely dismal this season but have still drawn with all four of England’s Champions League representatives. Fulham have just won at Anfield, emulating Brighton and Burnley; the Seagulls also beat Spurs, the Clarets also defeated Arsenal.
Look at previous seasons. In 2011/12, Manchester City won the title on goal difference in part because Manchester United lost at home to relegated Blackburn; in 2009/10, Chelsea won it by one point when United’s early-season defeat to promoted and relegated Burnley came at a cost.
And it is worth noting who the 19th and 20th clubs can be. Some of the division’s more endearing and improbable stories are facilitated by the Championship play-offs, which perhaps would be scrapped or altered. Its winners can include those long exiled from the top flight like Burnley (when they came up in 2009), Blackpool, Swansea and Huddersfield; recent winners include one of England’s grandest clubs, in Aston Villa, who could now qualify for Europe this season. If the division is chopped of two representatives, then its smallest members look most susceptible, but Wigan, for example, offered much in their eight-season stay.
Or if three-up, three-down were retained, then the clubs in 16th and 17th would go; last year that meant West Ham and Villa, two who have improved and illuminated the division this year. It underlines why everyone outside the ‘big six’ has no incentive to vote to reduce the Premier League; turkeys famously don’t vote for Christmas.
But it is also part of the dynamic of English football that, in part because of its history and their size, there are around 50 clubs who can imagine themselves in the Premier League (indeed, 49 have played there) if they get a season or two at a lower level very right. Some are now found in League One; the odd one, like Bolton, in League Two.
Reducing the division, as Agnelli seems to want, comes at a cost to hope and ambition; it could consign some to permanent exile, with the Championship fattened by clubs who would otherwise be in the top flight. It would deny them of the sort of highlights that can be cherished for decades (Huddersfield, for instance, may have gone down with 16 points, but only after staying up at Chelsea and beating United the previous year).
The Premier League has an imperfect competitive balance, but the £100 million each participant receives in television revenue gives them a chance; more, some would say, than some clubs in predictable Champions League pools have. Reforming that may have its merits, given it has often been a competition of two halves, a dull group stage followed by often outstanding knockout ties, in recent years, though Agnelli’s Swiss-style system looks more like a licence to print money than one designed to improve the early part of the competition.
But his interventions into domestic leagues look devoid of intellectual or sporting merit. Perhaps his most positive contribution to inject competitive balance was to sack Massimiliano Allegri to give others more of a chance of winning Serie A.
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