May 16, 2009


Premier League: Manchester United 0 Arsenal 0 (Scott Murray, 5/16/09,


75 min: United look happy enough with the 0-0 here, sitting back and allowing Arsenal to pass it around as much as they like.

So I nearly made it on my vow to follow a full season of English Premier League soccer and see if I was really missing anything. Of course, as soon as baseball started again my attention drifted (okay, sped) away. At some point I may write up a more thorough critique of the game, but here the couple things in its favor and a couple of the biggest problems, displayed this week.

The one thing that's really enjoyable about the game is all the stuff that happens when they aren't playing it. The personnel stuff is so overblown and melodramatic you expect a team to sign Susan Lucci next. Because they generally play only once a week, like the NFL, people read far too much into each performance, rather than looking at who the game was played against, the state of the two teams, etc. But it's amusing to hear them pronounce a team dead or invincible on the basis of one 90 minute spasm. And the coverage--podcasts, columns, call-in shows, etc.--is so voluminous and obsessive that they have to fill all that downtime with absurd speculation about what rather trivial signings and performances mean for the future. It makes the culture of soccer hilarious to observe from without.

But it's truly bizarre that they just crowned a champion that can't beat the other good teams in the league head-to-head. The 2nd place team has no losses to any another top 4 team while the champion mustered just 5 points (you get one for a tie and three for a win) against their peers. They basically won the title on the back of a long string of one goal victories over lesser opponents, most of them a function of referees decisions. Until very late in the season--when an opposing manager and the antics of their own players made the phenomenon too visible for further unfairness--they benefited from an unbalanced number of foul calls when their stars fell down and non-calls when their stars and central defenders committed fouls. In the NBA the home team notoriously gets good calls. In soccer the prestige teams and players get good calls, even when they're on the road. And the champion just happens top be the prestige team. So you ended up with a team that can't beat good clubs winning because of the unfair advantage they enjoy against the bad ones.

Now, if there were a playoff you'd have the opportunity to rectify that situation. The officiating in championship games would be scrutinized in a way it isn't on a Wednesday night in February in Sunderland. But, even though the World, European, and English soccer titles are decided by playoff competitions, the EPL is decided solely on regular season results and ties count. Thus you end up with the oddity that the team with just two losses all year isn't going to win because it tied a few too many games and the team that did win was playing for a tie today. There's something deeply unsporting -- though profoundly European -- about a competition where you don't need to win in order to win.

Compounding these problems, the champions also played a game on Wednesday against a team whose manager had acknowledged after a loss the preceding weekend that he couldn't make his players care about winning games because they'd shut down after guaranteeing they wouldn't be relegated to a lower league. They were just playing out the string -- a common enough occurrence in the League -- and so you had the title being decided in non-competitive games.

It is the case in several sports that the best team may not win the championship. In particular, a team that squanders early opportunity but plays best later in the season may deprive itself of the playoffs and a chance to prove its superiority (this year's Patriots, for example). But, generally, the playoffs afford teams that underperformed for some portion of the season a shot at redeeming themselves and often exposes those that fattened up on inferiors. Rarely, though not never, would you end up with a situation, as today in the EPL, where bookmakers would give you prohibitive odds against the champs if they played the runner-up tomorrow.

Posted by Orrin Judd at May 16, 2009 8:51 AM
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