ITMH’s competitive inequality project – introduction

Earlier this week, under angry, thundery skies, Manchester City paraded the spoils of a dominant season through the streets of Manchester. While their first Champions League victory allows them to finally claim a much longed-for place at the head of European football, their domestic dominance was already assured, with this season seeing them claim a fifth Premier League in the past six years, a period in which they have also managed six domestic cup victories.

Throughout football’s history, there have always been dominant teams. In the earliest years of the English Football League, Preston North End, Sunderland and Aston Villa vied for dominance; more recently Liverpool and Manchester United have both held the title claimed by City today of being English football’s unarguably pre-eminent power. In Europe, clubs like Real Madrid, Juventus and Bayern Munich have records of domestic success beyond anything displayed by any English team. Is it justified, therefore, for City’s current success to be consistently accompanied by hand-wringing about inequality? Is the situation today any less competitive than when Liverpool finished in the top two for ten straight seasons from the 1980s to early 1990s?

The posts within this project utilise four simple measures to attempt to assess the health of competition within the top European leagues and examine whether the sense that many fans possess – that the level of resources available to the teams at the top is harming the game – is reflected on the pitch.

Firstly, in a healthy, open competitive environment, you would expect to see a measure of flux in terms of league finishing positions. Each team is attempting to outperform others, to find tactical innovations or smart transfers that allow them to gain an edge over rival teams, so we should expect to see turnover in standings, both across each country’s highest league and also among the very top positions, as teams go through periods of relative success and failure. On the contrary, were success on-the-field to largely be a function of the off-the-field resources available to a club, we might expect to see a greater level of predictability and stability in finishing positions, with less movement and the emergence of some degree of sorting of clubs into tiers of relative performance.

The first two proposed measurements (adapted from measures used within a similar effort to measure levels of competition in commercial markets in Thomas Philippon’s The Great Reversal) try to capture this:

  1. Year-to-year correlation of finishing position. Simply by assessing how much a team’s finishing position in a league table correlates to their position the year before, we can track the extent to which a finishing place one year might be thought to influence that the following year: e.g. if a team finishes 6th, if correlation is higher, they are more likely to finish in a position close to 6th the following year; a lower figure would suggest a greater range of probable outcomes. This measure therefore allows the overall stability of league finishing positions to be tracked. If correlation is increasing, this would be consistent with the claim that money was undermining the unpredictability of league competitions.
  2. Levels of turnover at the top of the league. While the level of flux across an entire league is important, it means little if there is massive fluidity of teams lower in the league, yet the top few places are dominated by a small elite. So we might also look to assess the probability that a team who finish in the top few places dropping away to a lower finishing position at any time over the subsequent three seasons. This can give us an indication of the extent to which positions towards the top of a league become easier for elite clubs to defend. A lower figure here indicates a lower probability of top teams subsequently failing to finish in higher league positions. In discussion of specific leagues I’ll mention calculations based on the percentage of the top two, top four, top six and top ten places, depending upon the size of the league and an assessment of the shape of competition at the top.

Yet, as well as assessing the levels of fluidity in leagues as a whole, another key consideration is the scale of dominance exercised by the clubs at the very top. Is the gap between league champions and the also-rans wider than it was in the past? Two further simple measurements can capture this:

  1. Points-per-game of champions. If there is a greater gap between the elite and the rest, you would expect elite clubs would record more victories and fewer defeats than champions of the past, which would result in higher points totals. (To allow for comparison, points have been calculated based on league records on the basis of three points per win, applying this even to leagues that were played under a two points per win rule. In a future post, I will consider whether the shift to three points for a win led to a different mindset and approach, which could therefore impact upon the figures used here.)
  2. Average goal difference per game. Similar to the above, increases in the gap at the top would be likely to register in greater margins of victory and avoidance of anything but narrow defeats.

An increase in either of these measures over time would be evidence of a greater gap between teams at the top and the remainder of their respective leagues.

Armed with these four measurements, the next few posts will track trends in competition across some of Europe’s top leagues.

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