Liverpool defeated Brighton yesterday, 1-0, in something of a defensive grind. I’d invited a friend of mine to come down to Magee’s to see an actual football match in an actual football pub. Unfortunately, the opponent was on the lesser end of the Premier League (Don’t tell ManU that…) and the game was largely Chris Hughton’s side sitting in the low block and waiting for counter opportunities, so the chance for demonstrating true Reds fan spirit was kind of lacking (I even had trouble getting the Mo Salah song going after his goal.) There were some exceptions: as with the first two games, the first 10 minutes of the second half saw Brighton come out and play. Strangely, the proliferation of opportunities in the first half that Liverpool largely failed to capitalize on didn’t recur when Brighton changed their approach. On the contrary, the Seagulls had the majority of solid chances in the second half, even if those chances didn’t produce shots; the only one of which required a pretty nice save from Alisson.
But, as noted last week, the defense is about much more than just the 2nd-most-expensive-goalkeeper in history. Liverpool’s defense has been great for the past 9 months and it shows in that telltale statistic, expected goals. Liverpool’s xGA is currently the lowest in the league at 1.32. Alisson is also the second-best in the league at outperforming his xGA; only Cardiff’s Neil Etheridge is better, somehow. Both are also the only keepers to be outperforming their xGA by more than a goal. But no keeper does that without a solid defense in front of him that minimizes both the number of shots he faces (Brighton had 6) and the quality of them (2 on goal.) Incidentally, Liverpool is also leading the xG metric for the EPL by 1.5. (22 and 8 shots against Brighton.) We had 70% possession, more corners, fewer fouls, pass accuracy of 87%, and won more tackles and aerial duels. In every conceivable way, Liverpool was the superior team and still only won 1-0. That’s football, sometimes. It has to be said that Brighton keeper Matt Ryan also had an excellent game and even got a hand on the one goal that Salah did score. Also this:
Seriously. Dude is fer reals. I’m perfectly content right now having him in there in place of either Henderson or Fabinho. That’s something I never thought I would have been saying about Gini Wijnaldum.
At one point during the game, my friend said: “American Express… That must be worth a lot.” I smiled and said: “No. Not really. Shirt sponsors tend to spend when they’re sure they have a real advertising opportunity and not before.” That’s amply demonstrated here:
One thing that’s notable about that list is the number of gambling firms represented: 9 of 20. Admittedly, Wolverhampton being able to put the stylized ‘W’ of their sponsor on their shirt is convenience in marketing, but it’s still kind of surprising that betting firms make up almost half of the main shirt sponsors in the league. Two more appear as sleeve sponsors (Mansion for Bournemouth and Moplay for Watford.) But the real takeaway from the above list is the absolute cliff of revenue that appears after the top 6. Tottenham is £12 million behind Man United, but West Ham is more than twice that amount behind Spurs when it comes to sponsor revenue. And this is just shirt sponsors. Most of the top 6 have extensive sponsorship deals of other kinds that allow them to rake in enormous piles of cash that the bottom 14 simply don’t have access to. Indeed, much of what makes ManU the richest club in the world is sponsorship revenue.
As a fan of a top 6 club, you may ask: ‘So, what’s the problem? Liverpool is one of the chosen few.’ And I’m not sure that I am concerned. Despite there not being 20 teams with a shot at the title, there are still six, which makes the Premier League more interesting than La Liga’s three (Real, Barca, Atleti), Serie A’s 2 (Juventus and whichever of Napoli, Roma, and the Milans shows up), and the lone contender for both the Bundesliga (Bayern) and Ligue 1 (PSG.) Additionally, England’s two cup competitions, as much as I detest the extra wear and tear that the League Cup places on participants, does give those smaller clubs something to shoot for, since those are win-or-go-home (or, yes, play the draw makeup) tournaments which drastically increase the variance of the eventual winner. The eventual winner does still tend to be one of the top clubs, but the chance is at least present.
But the argument remains: How is this fair if clubs like West Ham and Watford simply can’t compete for the title that they’re all nominally playing for? One argument is that American leagues like the NFL are better because their various policies enable weaker teams to succeed, thus creating interest. The NFL does this by evenly sharing TV revenue and by rewarding failure: the lower you finish in the league, the more access you have to the best players in the next year’s draft. The EPL and other Euro leagues send you down to their second divisions for failing, making the climb back to contending for the top division title that much more difficult. However, Soccernomics (an amazing book that all of you should read) says that, in their analysis, a more “even” distribution of title winners doesn’t necessarily mean parity in a league (the “any given Sunday” maxim.) The greater variance of the NFL’s lower number of games in the regular season and the existence of one-and-done playoffs make it look like there’s a greater degree of parity, but if one examines the regular season winning percentage more closely, it’s clear that the top teams will remain the top teams over extended periods of time, just like in the EPL. One only has to think of dynasties like the Patriots, Cowboys, Steelers, and 49ers, along with the decades-long futility of teams like the Lions to recognize that. Incidentally, the EPL also evenly shares a significant portion of TV revenue, although appearance money (for the number of times the club appears on nationwide broadcast) is based on actual appearances and international TV monies, currently an even split, will now be slanted more toward the teams that actually appear in Euro competition.
Soccernomics also points out that a wide open, 20 team contest doesn’t necessarily make the league more interesting or compelling for the average fan. Attendance doesn’t rise because people think that Huddersfield Town has a chance to win the league like Leceister did three years ago. On the contrary, it often rises because there are dominant teams in the league. No one flocks to see Palace play Bournemouth. But they will come to see the Cherries perhaps upset Man City or other teams that their fans have learned to loathe over the years simply because those clubs do win all the time. The win over City wouldn’t be nearly as sweet if the Cherries had a regular chance to do so. That’s what becomes compelling about being the fan of a smaller club. Furthermore, with the drastic increase in TV money that puts the EPL head-and-shoulders above the other major leagues, it’s evident that clubs like Brighton are no longer the casual wins that would have been expected in previous years. Talent is emerging in the lower 14 and none of the top 6 can afford (ahem) to dismiss them as automatic wins. ManU and City have both felt that impact in the last week.
Interestingly, the increasing dependence on sponsorships for even some of the big clubs is precisely because of clubs like City and Chelsea and PSG, where the introduction of massively wealthy owners upset what had been the established order and turned the top 4 into the top 6. FSG, who just turned down a £2 billion offer from a cousin of City owner, Sheik Mansour, have still expressed interest in a minority owner coming in to provide a boost to LFC’s cash reserves in order to compete with the likes of City. One speculates that continued interest in upgrading Anfield and the ticket price walkout from a couple years ago that put a halt to some of that development may be connected to the investment strategy.
It’s not as if minor clubs can’t still find a way forward the same way Chelsea and City (the very definition of minor clubs until Roman Abramovich and Sheikh Mansour, respectively, arrived) did. A sterling example is Wolverhampton, which has returned to the top division almost solely because a Chinese investment firm, Fosun International, has poured money into the club. That, of course, brings to mind the question of how money, in general, and not just its uneven distribution is affecting the game. Michael Calvin has just finished a new book that covers that topic. He appeared recently on the Guardian podcast to talk briefly about his experience writing it and his general distaste for the oceans of cash that are now sloshing around. He thinks, in general, that it detracts from the spirit of the game for precisely the reason that Soccernomics elaborates upon: the ability for a small club to do something remarkable and bring joy to its fans. He thinks that’s becoming ever more remote with the spending power of the big clubs. Of course, something he neglected to mention in his story on the podcast about a grown man reduced to tears upon witnessing his club advancing from League 1 to the Championship is that part of the emotional impact for fans of clubs like that is that they’ve typically always been losers. No one is going to be reduced to a sobbing mess if Chelsea wins the league again. Although, I have to admit, if Liverpool manages to win it for the first time in 30 years, I may have trouble with all the dust in the air…
Calvin’s argument is also one that people have been making for many years now: “All this money is ruining the game!” And, yet, the reason that so much more money is flowing into the games is because they are more and more popular. Chicken, egg, ad infinitum. Despite my occasional misgivings about the insanity of the transfer market (which are only occasional because I’m never going to be one who complains about workers getting paid), I still think the game is robust enough to remain interesting, even if there’s a Super Premier League and just a Premier League.