In football, the league table is destiny. It decides who will be Champion, who will be in the Champions League, and who will go to the Championship. Though they may be separated by a single point, finishing in 18th place is an unforgivable crime which brings misery for potentially millions of fans (while costing millions of pounds), while finishing in 17th demands cracking open bottles of champagne and issuing special edition DVDs. This is not to be questioned—the league table never lies.
Or at least that’s the bedtime story football fans tell ourselves to keep them from going mad. Because if the league table were a pundit, sitting deadfaced alongside Alan Hansen in a brightly-lit BBC studio, they would be the most hated commentator in Europe.
Worse still, almost every club would heed their terrible advice.
But the ugly truth is that the venerable, respected league table is a dirty liar, and its judgments are often mindlessly arbitrary. Sure, the champions are almost always deserving winners, and the three relegated teams usually deserve their fate. But overall, nuance is not the league’ table’s strong suit.
To understand why, imagine for a moment that the eight best teams in the league start the season with eight equally good squads under eight equally good managers. All have ambitions to finish in the top two places. They each fight tooth and nail, and while they all face differing circumstances, they all play the best they can the whole season through.
As far as the league table is concerned, none of that matters—six of those teams must finish in places 3-8. Why they end up where they end up might be completely arbitrary; one team’s striker could pick up an unfortunate injury, or another club’s forwards hit the crossbar or missed the far post when they should have scored once or twice too often.
Nevertheless, at first glance we might assume the 8th place team was badly managed or didn’t have the right set of players, while the 1st place team were worthy champions under a brilliant manager.
This hypothetical is, of course, an exaggeration…there will always be a strong element of ‘deserve’ when it comes to where a club finishes in the table. And most of us understand that a team crowned champion on the back of a superior goal difference was not far and away the clear, deserving winner across all possible worlds.
But there are still a host of reasons why a team might finish in 13th and not 7th place that have nothing to do with talented players or competent managers. Reasons like:
An imbalanced schedule. There are two equally good teams, but one faces the best clubs in the league spread out over the course of the season, while the other places four of the best six clubs in the league over the Christmas break and in January. One finishes in 7th, the other 13th.
Freak injuries. Despite the protestations of people like Raymond Verheijen, not every injury is the result of poor training techniques. There are two equally good teams, but one loses two key players—one lands awkwardly and the other gets scythed to the ground—while the other stays healthy. One finishes in 7th, the other 13th.
Accumulated bad luck. A team misses maybe 8% more of their shots than another team and lets in 7% more. This isn’t anything better tactics or finishing would improve; it’s just one of those things. Nonetheless, one team finishes in 7th, the other 13th.
I think most of us grasp the impact of these scenarios, and so do many football clubs.
The problem is when clubs come to the end of the season, discount the possibility that circumstances beyond their control significantly affected their position in the table, and decide that something must be done.
Because the league table only says one thing: “You want to be a 7th place team but you are a 13th place team, therefore you must do something drastic to improve.”
Maybe that’s true, but maybe it isn’t. It would help if, before making potentially rash decisions, teams choose to look carefully at their injury record or finishing rate or schedule balance to know the exact scope of what needs changing, if anything.
Because a lot of clubs don’t exactly have the best toolkit when it comes to “fixing” things, outside of sacking the manager and spending a lot more on players. This is a bit like a doctor who skips examining their patients and decides to prep for surgery.
The league table spins a good yarn, but it’s not one for detail. By taking drastic action over something that may resolve itself on its own in a year’s time, some clubs may heed its stark advice at their peril.