The Premier League at half-time: a league of two halves.

Leicester City’s success continues to impact the Premier League…

I wrote in September about the stunning level of activity of Premier League clubs in the summer transfer window. Around £1.2 billion was spent by Premier League clubs, a new world transfer fee record was set by Manchester United in signing Paul Pogba and 13 clubs broke their transfer fee records. In total gross spend was around 50% higher than the year before.

The new television deal handed clubs more money to spend and this was undoubtedly a factor in encouraging so many clubs to break their transfer records. But the real story was the surge in spending by the “Big” 4 (Arsenal, Chelsea and the two Manchester clubs) and the “Big” 6 teams (including Tottenham Hotspur and Liverpool.

As a result, the window saw the reversal of the recent trends toward a more even distribution of elite players (defined as international players in the ten strongest countries according to FIFA rankings in the September of each season plus England internationals):

  • The “big” 4  increased their share of elite players from 32.5% last year to 39.2%, only just behind their six year high of 41%;
  • The “big” 6 share has gone from 50.6% last year to 54.1% this year;
  • The share per club across the rest of the competition is more evenly balanced than in recent seasons with the exception of Everton, a clear mover ahead of the pack after a strong transfer window.

Without doubt, the wealthiest clubs really pulled the stops out in response to Leicester’s remarkable season last year. The implications of the shock Leicester City’s success delivered continue to reverberate around the Premier League.

After 19 games we are halfway through the season and it is a good time to check in on how things are going.

The “Big 6” are back…

The table below confirms how the Premier League has changed this season:

  • For the first time in a while at halfway, the top six teams in the table are the “Big 6”, confirming the impact of the increased spending over the summer on their competitiveness; and
  • The top six have in total earned more points, scored more goals and accumulated the highest goal difference than the top six teams at halfway in any year since 2011/12. This is more noteworthy in that this season follows a summer international tournament and historically the “Big 6” struggle in the first half of such seasons.

Premier League half season performance comparisons 2011/12 to 2016/17

Season Points earned by top 6 Goals scored by top 6 Top 6 total goal difference Points 8th place team Points 9th place team Total points teams 7th to 20th
2016/17 246 234 127 26 24 272
2015/16 210 185 75 29 29 306
2014/15 222 211 100 28 28 296
2013/14 230 230 112 33 27 295
2012/13 220 224 94 28 25 292
2011/12 236 235 117 26 24 284

…but not at the expense of unpredictability…

There is no arguing that this season so far has seen the resurgence of the “Big 6”, the clubs typically expected to dominate the competition. However, this has not been at the expense of predictability, the Premier league remains competitive. As shown below, this season has been relatively unpredictable, falling in the middle of the pack for the last seven seasons in terms of the ability of “Elite” player strength to predict performance.

Table: Difference between expected and actual position at halfway in the season based on “Elite” player levels by club

2010/11 2011/12 2012/13 2013/14 2014/15 2015/16 2016/17
87 61 69 77 68 73 69

There are two factors keeping unpredictability high:

  • The “Big 6” are performing in line with expectations overall, given their squad strengths, but there are differences within the group: Chelsea and Liverpool are outperforming their squad quality levels and other members of the “Big 6” are underperforming in relative terms; and
  • Elsewhere in the League there are significant differences between squad strength and position at halfway. This is confirmed when we look at the points earned as shown in the comparison table:
    • The points required to be in 8th or 9th place are the lowest in that time period; and
    • The total points earned by all the teams from 7th to 20th are the lowest since 2011/12.

…it’s a league of two halves…

The Premier League is shaping up differently this year as the impact of the spending in the summer transfer window feeds through into results. The “Big 6” clubs are stronger and have pulled away from the pack. However, this has not made the competition more predictable, quite the opposite.

  • Firstly, it is harder to predict how the “Big 6” will finish. There appears little to choose between the teams and we can expect twists and turns to the end of the season.
  • Secondly, the battle for places outside the top six is the most intense it has been for years and it is possible that positions 7th to 10th could be achieved with a lower number of points together than has been the norm in recent years.
  • Suddenly a European place could be available where there was no realistic hope previously.

…that is hard to predict.

This all means that losses of form, suspensions, injuries, refereeing decisions could all take on extra significance and it seems that supporters of all clubs are in for a roller coaster ride. Though after Stoke City’s first five games, one point, three goals scored and 14 conceded, the rest of the season risks being tame, albeit in a good way.

Economists have been subject to significant amounts of criticism of their forecasting capabilities in recent months. Nevertheless, in September, I suggested in the season ahead:

“We might therefore expect to see more predictability at the top of the classification. By contrast, ..…., we should expect even more competition between the rest of the teams and hence a very unpredictable outcome – I predict this season is not for the faint of heart. Watch out for Everton with a new manager and stronger squad.”

I have to say that I am pleasantly surprised by how things have developed compared to my forecast. I spotted Everton’s rise and called the top six and the dynamics of the competition overall pretty well – who says economists can’t forecast? I will be back after the transfer window closes at the end of January to update my predictions to the end of the season.

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