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Football is getting so predictable one season seems much like the last.

By Tony Attwood

In the 15 years since Arsenal’s unbeaten season – an event which has not yet been emulated of course – only four teams have won the Premier League: Manchester City, Manchester United, Chelsea and Leicester City.  Noting this I thought it might be worth asking the question, “Does that mean that the top division has become ever more predictable?”

To answer this I took a couple of snapshots of other 15 year periods.

In the 15 years prior to Arsenal winning their first title under George Graham – that is 1973/4 to 1987/88, six teams won the league: Liverpool, Everton, Aston Villa, Nottingham Forest, Derby County and Leeds United.

In the 15 years prior to that (and in case you are losing track, that takes from 1958/9 to 1972/3), 11 teams won the league: Leeds, Arsenal, Derby, Liverpool, Everton, Wolverhampton, Burnley, Tottenham, Ipswich, Manchester United and Manchester City.

So, yes it can be argued that football in England is getting a bit stuck in a rut.  Over those three 15 year periods the number of clubs winning the title has gone from 11 to six to four.   Of course you can choose other 15 year periods, or indeed look at 10 year periods, but by and large, overall the number of clubs winning the league in any 15 year period used to be higher than now.

For example in the 15 years leading up to the second world war which included Arsenal’s period of dominance, eight different teams won the league.  In the period leading up to the first world war it was seven.  Only once does there seem to have a been a period of such a dominance as now, and that was 1975/6 to 1989/90 when only five teams won the league (Liverpool, Arsenal, Everton, Villa and Forest).  In ten of those years Liverpool won the league and my goodness was that so boring for everyone else.

Although the press and TV glorified Liverpool, while ignoring the number of times they snatched a goal in the last couple of minutes to win a match, during the period crowds at Division 1 football matches went down, down, and down – something neither the commentaries of the era nor most of those since, actually mentionedy.  The average first division crowd in 1975/6 was 27,997. By 1983/4 the average had collapsed to 18,855; in short in eight seasons crowds in the top division went down by a third.

By the end of the domination run it had recovered a little to 20,776, but it was not until 1997 that crowds in the top division exceeded the 1975/6 level.  In short it took 21 years for attendances to recover to the level they had before the period of endless Liverpool victories.   It is perhaps a point worth noting in Manchester City go on winning and winning competitions (they did the treble this season); last time this sort of dominance happened  crowds collapsed.

But back to the league tables: the fact that there have been periods of dominance by clubs in many leagues puts into context my glorious achievement of selecting the winners of six European leagues at the start of this past season, and getting all six right.  All I am adding now is the fact that dominance of the type we are seeing across all six leagues has happened in the Football League in the past.

Mulling over this issue I took a look back at the predictions the Guardian writers made at the start of this past season in terms of how the Premier League would end up.

Now predicting a whole league table one year ahead seemed to me to be pretty difficult, and they actually got six out of the 20 in the right place – which I have to say looks pretty good going.

But then I began to wonder.  I mean, I doubt that many of us would have said that they would have expected one of last year’s top six to drop out of the top six – and indeed none did.  So that in itself makes life easier.  And we know that generally promoted teams struggle.  So I thought I would look at this a little more deeply…

Here are their predictions:

Position Prediction Who got that position? Where the predicted club came Difference
1 Manchester City Manchester City 1st 0
2 Liverpool Liverpool 2nd 0
3 Manchester United Chelsea 6th -3
4 Tottenham Hots Tottenham Hots 4th 0
5 Arsenal Arsenal 5th 0
6 Chelsea Manchester United 3rd +3
7 Everton Wolverhampton 8th -1
8 West Ham Everton 10th -2
9 Leicester City Leicester City 9th 0
10 Wolverhampton West Ham 7th +3

Bottom half

Position Prediction Who got that position? Where the predicted club came Difference
11 Burnley Watford 15 -4
12 Southampton Crystal Palace 16 +4
13 Newcastle Newcastle 13 0
14 Brighton Bournemouth 17 -3
15 Fulham Burnley 19 -4
16 Crystal Palace Southampton 12 +4
17 Bournemouth Brighton 14 +3
18 Watford Cardiff 11 +7
19 Huddersfield Fulham 20 -1
20 Cardiff Huddersfield 18 +2

Only one club did the Guardian team get way out: they predicted Watford to end up in 18th, but the club ended up 11th – seven places higher.  Every other club they got within four places:

  • Six clubs had their positions predicted correctly including four of the top five.
  • Two clubs were predicted one place out.
  • Two clubs were predicted two places out.
  • Five clubs were predicted three places out.
  • Four clubs were predicted four places out.

So, does that mean that the Guardian team are geniuses, or does that mean the PL is getting easier to predict?

To try and work that out I took this past season’s league table and compared it with the one before.

1 Manchester City 1 0
2 Liverpool 4 +2
3 Chelsea 5 +2
4 Tottenham Hotspur 3 -1
5 Arsenal 6 +1
6 Manchester United 2 -4
7 Wolverhampton Wanderers Promoted  –
8 Everton 8 0
9 Leicester City 9 0
10 West Ham United 13 +3
11 Watford 14 +3
12 Crystal Palace 11 -1
13 Newcastle United 10 -3
14 AFC Bournemouth 12 -2
15 Burnley 7 -8
16 Southampton 17 +1
17 Brighton and Hove Albion 15 -2
18 Cardiff City Promoted  –
19 Fulham Promoted  –
20 Huddersfield Town 16 -4
  • Three teams as we can see stayed in the same position as last year: Everton, Leicester and Man City.
  • Four teams changed by just one position: Tottenham, Arsenal, Palace, Southampton.
  • Four teams changed by two positions: Liverpool, Chelsea, Bournemouth, Brighton.

In short, over half of the Premier League ended up within two places of where it was the year before.  There were, in fact, only two big movers: Wolverhampton who came from the Championship to end up 7th and Burnley who dropped from 7th last season to 15th – probably as a result of slogging it out in the Europa League from July onwards, and possibly by having referees more aware of their on the field tactics which led to their manager making a big fuss about them not getting penalties.

Returning to the Guardian, they got six predictions right, which is better than using last season as a predictor, so congratulations to them.

But we should recognise that based on this one analysis of this season and last season, the chances are that if you were to predict that clubs would end up within one or two positions next season of what they did this season, you would get the majority right.

In short, from one season to another, the Premier League doesn’t change much.   In terms of league movement one team moved eight places, but looking at all the other teams that were in the league across both seasons, no one moved by more than four places.  Which may seem what we might expect, but it certainly never used to be like this.

Unless something changes, football could indeed suffer a decline in attendances, either because of the dominance of one team, as happened in the late 70s and early 80s, or simply because each season is much like the last.  Or worse, both.

In the end it is just possible that leaving aside us fanatics with our season tickets, people could simply get bored.

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