The English Premier League is Dying
The EPL is the most competitive and dynamic soccer* league in the world. It attracts the largest concentration of the world’s best players in one place, commands an enormously lucrative global audience and even teams in the lower half of the table are potential world-beaters.
Sure it isn’t perfect and the ‘Big Six’ teams dominate, but at least this is better than the supremacy of just two or three teams as in the other big soccer leagues of Spain, France, Italy and Germany.
Sadly this excellent state of affairs is quickly ending and explains the reason so many top EPL teams were willing to move to a new ‘closed’ European Super League last season.
What is the problem? Money of course. But not necessarily for the reason most think. The problem isn’t just that Big Six teams are spending too much. It is that they are stockpiling so many elite players that they can’t use just to keep them away from other teams in the EPL. The situation has become so bad that the bottom half of the league isn’t even trying any longer.
The top teams are spending too much. That is nothing new. But things are getting out of control for a league that wants to maintain a semblance of real competition. Consider Manchester United last weekend in its thrashing of Newcastle United. Edinson Cavani (salary £13M), Juan Mata (salary £8M) and Victor Lindelof (£6M)** were unused substitutes who sat on the bench. It isn’t that these three aren’t star players, they are. It is that the team has even better stars to put on the field.
These are elite athletes and many other teams would love to have them on their squads, but they simply cannot afford them. The combined salaries of these three Manchester Union bench warmers is more than the total team salaries of three separate teams in the EPL (Norwich, Leeds, and Brentford).
In 2017/18 the top two highest paid rosters surpassed the combined total of the seven lowest spending teams. By 2021/22 the top two spending teams spent as much as the ten lowest spending teams combined — or a full half of the league!
This is nothing new to those who worry about what is happening to the sport — the big teams are spending too much.
However, the real problem is the bottom half of the league is giving up and spending less. Let’s look at the most recent five years of data:
In 2021/22 the top two spending teams (Manchester United and Chelsea) shelled out a combined £390M. In 2017/18 the top two spending teams (Manchester United and Manchester City) ‘only’ paid out £274M The rate of inflation over the four years for the top spending team was 54% and 29% for the second highest spending team. But the lowest spending team dropped over that time from £29M to £13M and the next lowest spending team saw its roster outlay drop over these four years from £35to £18M. The negative rate of inflation for these low spenders is close to 50%. This is ominous, even for fans of the Big Six. The top teams are strip-mining the best players out of the lower tier teams which aren’t even trying to keep up with the Big Six any more in terms of spending. Of course, competition will deteriorate quickly.
Perhaps Big Six supporters think this isn’t a problem. After all, they want to see their teams win! Somehow, they accept that because the big teams generate more viewership it is fine that those teams collect a greater share of the television broadcast revenue even though that means that over time they will drive more viewership and demand ever higher percentages of that cash flow stream in a feedback loop that makes the league ever less competitive. I would pay to take my kids to watch the Harlem Globetrotters trounce the Washington Generals…once.
Is it really much fun to watch the second half of Manchester United defeating Southampton 9–0 (February 3nd, 2021) after it is already 4–0 at halftime? Who else besides Man U fans will want to watch? What is the point?
The mismatch in spending is getting worse at an increasingly rapid rate.
The Big Six are ratcheting up what they pay their players while the bottom half of the league spends less and less.
In 2017/18 the bottom 10 spending clubs paid its players close to £450M, by this season the amount had dropped by almost a quarter to £344M. This while the Big Six teams continued to ratchet up their pay significantly. The result is that since 2017/18 the Big Six teams have moved from spending 150% of the total paid out by the bottom half of the League to 250%. In just five years!
Not only are the Big Six paying up to import top talent from the Continent, they are working in concert to steal the best players from the weaker EPL teams to make sure that those non-Big Six teams are unable to compete on anything like a level playing field.
Consider the experience of Wolverhampton Wanderers. This club with a storied history brought in Nuno Espirito Santo as its coach who assembled an outstanding roster that romped through the Championship and jumped into the EPL with a big splash. The team played an aggressive, direct version of the game with risk-taking strikers supported by fast wingbacks who advanced from the back line to create overloads against the opposition’s defense. While not a new strategy, it was executed with more enthusiasm and a greater risk-taking ethos. Wolves record against Big Six teams was outstanding — even winning a double against Manchester City. The new entrant finished both of its first two seasons back in the EPL in seventh place.
This clearly could not be allowed to continue. Tottenham bought away wingback Matt Doherty in a four-year £14M contract. Liverpool poached away forward Diogo Jota with a five-year £24M contract. Striker Raul Jimenez would certainly have been bought away if Arsenal’s David Luiz hadn’t caved in the backside of the skull of the Wolves’ player leading to questions if the Mexican would ever play…or even walk again (thankfully he has returned to the pitch). Finally, Coach Espirito Santo was hired away to Tottenham. It is no surprise that Wolves started this season with three consecutive losses.
Something similar took place of late with Manchester City buying Aston Villa’s star Jack Grealish. Aston Villa was just winning too many games. Now it will not. So far this year, Aston Villa has only won a single game out of its first four outings.
To take these top players away from non-Big Six teams, the selling teams have received extremely large transfer fees. Wolves received a package that may rise as high as £45M for Jotta, and Aston Villa got £100M for Grealish. Are these teams spending the money buying up great players from the Continent or elsewhere to remain competitive? It seems they aren’t as Wolves total roster salary this year is only £45M and Aston Villa is spending £52M.
Why should Big Six fans care? If nothing changes we will increasingly have a league where the chance a Big Six team loses to a bottom ten spending team approaches 0%. Fans of Big Six teams who want to watch a competitive game will only be able to look forward to 10 games out of 38 per year that are against other Big Six teams. Almost all the midseason domestic tournament games (FA Cup and EFL Cup) will also be uncompetitive, as even Big Six squads utilizing large numbers of pricey substitutes will roll over the competition. Then there are the small number of Champions League or Europa League games that actually matter for a Big Six team each year. This leaves us with the wealthier teams playing a lot of boring games where they have to field their best rosters in a race to rack up the most league points and the best goal scored ratio or they will risk elimination from the Champions League. However, this increases injuries to those same best players. This is the real context of some Big Six coaches complaining last year about the large number of games teams have to play. A couple of hamstring, knee or ankle injuries picked up in games against the likes of Watford or Brighton will directly result in missing a top 4 EPL finish or advancement in the Champions League.
If nothing changes…
- Most EPL games will become increasingly boring with the most important question being if a Big Six team player gets injured over the course of 90 minutes and how many goals the poorer team concedes.
- Non-Big Six EPL teams will spend only what is necessary to reduce the chance of being relegated. As clubs only need to earn about 1 point per game to remain in the EPL, less wealthy teams won’t even attempt to win when they play one of the ‘super’ teams and will have an incentive to ‘park the bus’ in front of their goal in the hopes of pulling off a 0–0 tie.
- The momentum for Big Six teams to join a new Super League will increase despite the clear and massive resistance to this from the clubs’ fan base.
There are many options to arrest the decline in competition, guarantee players receive market clearing wages and still allow Big Six teams to retain an unfair advantage. Suggestions include:
- Bar Big Six teams from poaching away players from other teams in the EPL. If Aston Villa want to sell Jack Grealish, well then, he can go play in Madrid.
- Mandate that non-Big Six teams spend their transfer payments within a short number of years resulting in higher spend by non-Big Six teams.
- Distribute a portion of the massive Champions League payments received by Big Six teams to the rest of the EPL as long as the money is spent on players.
None of these things will happen unless fans demand it. Too much winning in what is increasingly perceived to be a rigged game will eventually reduce match viewership, fan ardor and the popularity of the EPL.
Enjoy the season.
*Football, Futbol, Soccer. Let’s not get in a fight over the name for once.
** Salary data from Sportrac.com