Any conversation about the Premier League this season will invariably include an observation that it is ‘a strange season’ as the established order we have all grown used to has shown signs of a shift. Leicester at the top of the league table instead of battling for relegation, Manchester United trailing Crystal Palace, last seasons champions Chelsea going from bad to worse? Has the world been turned upside down?
For some this seasons results are due to a structural shift towards greater equality. In The Telegraph Paul Hayward writes in an article titled The Premier League has become the new NFL – volatile, rich and thoroughly equal “Once an immutable parade of four or five global corporations, with occasional interventions by Everton or Spurs, the Premier League has emerged from the latest deluge of television money more competitive, unpredictable, meritocratic, intriguing and fun.” There is even talk, such as on the blog Just Football, of a new middle-class of clubs, of which Leicester are said to be a member.
An article in The Economist, Why The English Premier League Has Been Turned Upside Down however, suggests that rather than any long-term structural change what we’re seeing is more likely the result of rapid innovations in tactics and the result of, in Chelsea’s case, a lack of summer transfer activity combined with fatigue impacting on the form of key players.
So what is the long-term picture? A while back, in an attempt to come up with a measure of competitiveness which allowed me to compare different leagues, I calculated the coefficient of variation of league wins. This is calculated by working out the average number of league wins, along with the standard deviation (SD), a measure of spread. The SD is then divided by the average to produce a percentage. A high percentage means that the number of league wins is more spread out, and therefore the league can be said to be more unequal whilst a low number shows that, the number of wins recorded by each club over a season is closer to the average, and therefore the league is more evenly balanced.
While there is a degree of fluctuation going all the way back to the 1983/84 season we can see the long-term trend over this period has been for the coefficient to increase, suggesting that inequality has been rising, notably so in the Premier League era; In 1983/84, for instance, the coefficient was 27.1, whilst it peaked in 07/08 at 46.8. The league, much like society, seemed to have become infused with a greater inequality between those at the top and the rest.
The past few seasons however, have seen something of a slight fall in the inequality. In 12/13 the coefficient was 46.8, 44.6 in 13/14 and 40.2 in 14/15. For the current season, up until the end of 2015 the figure stands at a slightly higher 41.8. So the league taken as a whole this season is not any more competitive than last season. But despite this apparently downwards trend it is hard to really tell whether this is a long-term change, or just short-term fluctuation, so we can’t rule out either the Hayward hypothesis, or the Economist alternative – or at least not yet.
Interestingly making a comparison with the other major European leagues shows that currently the Premier League is more evenly balanced than the rest. To a greater, or lesser extent almost all of the big leagues have seen a rise in inequality in recent years and at the end point of 2015 it is in fact the Bundesliga which is the most uneven with a coefficient of 49.1. The figure for Ligue 1 is also interesting as whilst at 46.7 it doesn’t stand out in the group, but between 2004-05 and 2012-13 its highest coefficient had been 38.4, and for most of the time it had been around the mid-thirties. This change is unsurprising though as what had been an open league has become increasingly dominated by one club, Paris St. Germain, who last season won the treble of league, cup and league cup.
European league coefficients (2015/16 season up to 31st Dec 2015)
Ligue 1 46.7
La Liga 47.5
Serie A 43.5
English top division coefficients (15/16 up to 31st Dec 2015)