The Sweeper: Clubs Divided Over Premier League Play-off Plans

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The Guardian reveals today that the Premier League is considering introducing a play-off tournament for England’s fourth UEFA Champions League spot:

Currently the club which finishes fourth goes through but the new proposal would mean a play-off between the clubs finishing fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh. The intention is to inject more competition into a league in which qualification has for years remained in the hands of the same four clubs.

Premier League sources have confirmed that the play-off proposal was presented at the most recent meeting of all clubs, on 4 February, and the league’s chief executive, Richard Scudamore, was authorised to return with further details in April.

It is understood that the idea was enthusiastically supported by all clubs – except the so-called big four of Chelsea, Manchester United, Arsenal and Liverpool. Scudamore, and the league’s secretary, Mike Foster, will examine the practicalities of how a play-off system could work: whether it should take the form of a home-and-away knockout system, similar to that in the Football League, or incorporate seeding. They will also look into when matches could be fitted into a crowded fixture calendar before making recommendations.

A majority of at least 14-6 would be needed to pass the rule change. ESPN Soccernet, though, reports the opposite on the support of the clubs, saying:

Soccernet understands the idea has little support among the clubs, who are concerned that it could cost English football one of its coveted places in the Champions League.

It has been suggested that only the first three European spots be decided on league position and the fourth place be determined by a play-off. That could mean the teams finishing between fourth and seventh play a mini-knockout competition.

Such a move would be seen as a measure to inject more competition into the league, but if the team finishing seventh qualified for and won the Champions League place play-off, it could affect English football’s coefficient – and eventually it is possible England’s quota could be cut from four to three clubs.

In addition, the fixture programme is so congested already that extending the season is not something most clubs would encourage, especially in a World Cup or European Championship year.

Back in the Guardian, however, John Ashdown says the idea “makes sense” for most clubs despite the risks of fixture congestion (it should be noted that the Netherlands abandoned its own play-off for their second CL spot just two seasons ago).

One wonders a little about the timing of this. On the one hand, this year is seeing the most competitive race for fourth place since Spurs’ infamous food poisoning incident in 2006.

One other other hand, the playoffs would create a new revenue stream for the league, and at a time clubs are struggling financially, the accusations of greed might be less stinging than they were a year or two ago with the Game 39  fiasco.  The Football Association would also welcome another moneyspinning game or three at Wembley.

It also brings into question the purpose of the league system. Playoffs in American sports generally make sense because of the division of the regular season competition into divisions or conferences. It makes no sense to have a play-off when everyone has played each other an equal number of times in the course of the league season. Tony Cascarino lays into the idea from this perspective on the Times’ blog, taking a swipe at American sports in the process:

Such a move undermines the whole season. You play for 38 matches, you have your ups and downs and at the end of it the best team wins the league and the worst teams go down. You can always say the league table doesn’t lie after 38 games – well, if this idea was brought in it could.

Football is cying out for some credibility but this smacks of a gimmick. Where does it stop? Do people really need the extra entertainment of a play-off at the end of a season? Are we becoming like the United States where we have a short attention span and are bored by the thought of a league season finishing after 38 games?

One possibility to alleviate this concern would be to weight the play-off to reward the teams that finished higher up, as is done in Greece. Wikipedia explains their system:

In the play-off for UEFA Champions League, the teams play each other in a home and away round robin. However, they do not all start with 0 points. Instead, a weighting system applies to the teams’ standing at the start of the play-off mini-league. The team finishing fifth in the Super League will start the play off with 0 points. The fifth place team’s end of season tally of points is subtracted from the sum of the points that other teams have. This number is then divided by three to give the other teams the points with which they start the mini-league.

It seems unlikely the Premier League would introduce a complicated system like that for its play-off. Either way, the idea is certain to attract less opposition than Game 39, and will have a definite attraction for clubs outside the big four.

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The Sweeper appears every weekday, and once at the weekend. For more rambling and links throughout the day every day, follow your editor Tom Dunmore @pitchinvasion on Twitter.

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