Competitive and unpredictable – the new economics of the Premier League

The “Big 6” are back…

I identified in my blog in January, the scale of the change in the Premier League at the halfway point of the season:

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

We can now confirm that this trend has continued in the second half of the season and the final table shows the “Big 6” and arguably the “Big 7” with Everton – who I tipped to have a good season – are more dominant than at any time since the introduction of 25 man playing squads.

Premier League performance comparisons 2011/12 to 2016/17


…in force…

This season has seen the “Big 6” at record highs on all measures of dominance – most points, most goals scored, highest aggregate goal difference, while conversely 8th and 9th place were achieved with the lowest total points in recent years and teams from 7th to 20th secured their lowest aggregate points total in recent years.

…after the “Leicester City” shock…

This change can be traced back to the summer transfer window. While the overall value of money spent in the transfer window was spectacular, the big story was the activity of the “Big 6” teams. Last season was clearly a shock to the system and the response was one of making sure that there will be no repeat with the 4 teams accounting for 45% of gross spend (43% of net) and the 6 for 57% (55%).  Manchester United were £10 million shy of their highest net spend in the last 5 years and the rest of the “Big 4” all exceeded their highest figure in that period, Arsenal by more than two times.

…taking us back to the future…

And the money was spent on quality. I have previously written about the distribution of “elite” players, playing for the top 10 FIFA ranked countries plus England and Wales, and how shifts in the mix help to explain why the Premier League has become more competitive in recent years. This window saw the reversal of the recent trends toward a more even distribution of elite players:

  • The “Big 4”  increased their share of elite players from 32.5% last year to 39.2%, only just behind their 6 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 which has moved ahead of the pack after a strong transfer window.

These moves reversed a trend towards a more even distribution of “elite” players that had been occurring in recent years. Looking at the table above, the 2016/17 season is closest to 2012/13 and 2013/14 measured by dominance of the “Big 6”. The two years after this period saw the elite player gap closing and results reflected this.

…but not reducing 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 but this has not been at the expense of predictability, the Premier league remains competitive. As shown below, this season has been most unpredictable of the last 7 seasons in terms of the ability of “Elite” player strength to predict performance.

Difference between expected and actual position over the season based on “Elite” player levels by club


The unpredictability is driven by the tightness of the competition between the clubs below seventh place. The top 7 places may not map exactly to perceived player strength but the wide variations are elsewhere with AFC Bournemouth and West Bromwich Albion overachieving and Watford and Crystal place underachieving relative to player profiles. However, this is a volatile classifications as shown by the fact 2 points separate the teams from 8th to 13th, 6 places. Very tight margins separate teams. Stoke City dropped 7 points at home in the last couple of minutes of games and no doubt other teams had similar “what if” scenarios.

…increasing the pressure…

The consequence of what appears to be the new normal for the Premier League is more pressure on managers and owners. Amongst the top 6 or 7 teams, there will now be losers in the bid to win a place in the Champions’ league and as we have just seen, even a team like Arsenal are no longer guaranteed a slot.

However, the rest of the competition will be even more pressured. The gap between success and failure is shrinking and a bad run could have much more severe consequences than was previously the case. Every point is going to be more hardly fought especially amongst teams in the same peer group.

…as the transfer window opens.

I would expect the upcoming transfer window to see new records broken as the battle for talent intensifies. However, money alone is not likely to be able to guarantee success especially for the teams outside the top 7. Almost certainly the greater resources of these teams together with their ability to offer European football will mean that the elite players are snaffled up. The rest of the division will be fighting for the remainder of the talent pool but with each team armed with large amounts of television money but limited by wage constraints from financial fair play, it is unlikely any team can corner the market. Instead the differentiator is likely to be the ability to identify bargains, the next N’Golo Kante able to change a team at low cost.

It promises to be a fascinating summer.

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