The Premier League is arguably the best football league in the world and quite probably the most exciting. What is not open to dispute, however, is that it is the most watched globally and also the richest. A total of 20 teams do battle over 38 games and what makes this league so popular with fans is its unpredictability. Whilst the biggest teams dominate, six different sides have won the title this millennium, which compares very favourably with the likes of Germany, France, Spain and Italy.
In addition, on any given week you are almost certain to see an upset or two, with the depth of quality so strong that anyone really can beat anyone else. The Premier League is also renowned for its pace and physicality and so it is very easy to see why it has been such a huge success and continues to be televised in almost every nation on Earth.
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Premier League Format
The Premier League follows a pretty standard sort of format that will be familiar to anyone who has a basic knowledge of the major football leagues around Europe and indeed the world. There are 20 teams and each of these plays each other team twice, once at home and once away. This means there are 38 games per team over the season, which typically runs from mid-August to early May, with the English Premier League (EPL) as a whole seeing 380 games over the course of a campaign.
In common with all (as far as we know) football leagues these days, a win earns the winning side three points and a draw earns a single point for each side. After 38 games the team with the most points wins the Premier League title with other key positions being the bottom three, who are relegated, and the top few places who compete for places in various European tournaments during the following season.
Unlike some major leagues around the world and certainly some lower divisions, there are no post-season play-off games to settle relegation, European spots, or, this being the top tier of English football, promotion. Should two teams finish level on points there are various deciding factors used to split them, whether this relates to the title, relegation, or simply prize money based on the finishing position.
For many years goal difference has been the key “tie-breaker” for teams level on points and should this also be equal, the total number of goals scored is used. In this scenario, whichever side has scored the most goals finishes above the other. Should it still be impossible to separate sides the current rules dictate that the head-to-head record between the teams is used, then the number of away goals scored in those matches.
No further methodology is provided by the PL should teams still remain inseparable, though during the 2021-22 season this did briefly seem a possibility as Liverpool and Man City slugged it out. With both games between the rivals in the league ending in 2-2 draws it was suggested a play-off game would have been used to decide the title, so we can only assume that would also have been used had teams been tied at the bottom of the table too.
Each year three teams are relegated from the Premier League to the Championship, whilst at the same time three teams are promoted from the second tier into the EPL. The three sides with the lowest points totals automatically go down. In terms of the three coming up, things are slightly more complex, with only the top two from the Championship earning automatic promotion.
The side who finishes third meets the sixth-placed side in a play-off semi, with fourth and fifth also doing battle. The winners of these ties meet at Wembley (usually) for the Championship play-off final, dubbed the richest game in football due to the financial rewards the Premier League brings.
European football the following season is one of the prizes awarded to those at the top of the table, or who win one of the domestic cups. The precise nature of this can vary from season to season according to the co-efficient awarded to the PL by UEFA which is based on how the league’s sides have performed in Europe in recent seasons.
It is highly complex but for a long time now some things have remained stable. Chiefly, the top four in the EPL qualify for the following season’s Champions League. In general the teams that finish fifth and sixth will play in the Europa League, whilst whoever is seventh will play in the Conference League. The UEFA Europa Conference League was founded in 2021 as a third major European competition. Further European places are available to English sides via the FA Cup (Europa League) and the EFL Cup (Conference League).
The PL, or more accurately, the Football Association Premier League (FAPL), is run as a business and each of the 20 clubs within it are shareholders and members. The members elect various positions including a chair, a chief executive and various directors who are responsible for a range of activities including growing the league and increasing its exposure.
Critics have argued that there is no real accountability and very little transparency. However, what cannot be argued is that the Premier League has not been a success. It has come a long, long way since it was first founded and is indisputably the richest and most-watched football league in the world.
History of the Premier League
The top flight of English football has existed since the Football League was founded in 1888 by 12 clubs, including the likes of Aston Villa, Everton, Wolves and Notts County. However, our focus here is the Premier League itself which is, of course, much younger. The top flight as we now know it had its first season in 1992/93 following a split from the Football League.
This was the start of the era of big money, with Sky televising far more games than had ever been shown and firmly putting their money where their mouth was. Strange as it may seem now, the success of the Premier League was far from guaranteed and many thought it was a huge risk. That first TV deal saw 60 matches broadcast, far more than had ever been shown before, though a fraction of the current schedule.
Equally, the contract was worth “just” £304m, that total spread over five seasons too. In a world where players are sold for £200m that may not seem like much but back in 1992 the transfer world record was only £13m. The new influx of cash allowed Premier League teams to invest in new stadia, as well as top players from around the globe. What’s more, the value of the television deal would grow rapidly in the years ahead.
The next contract was worth £670m but over just four seasons and the next a massive £1bn for just three seasons. With further cash coming from the sale of the international rights to the Premier League it was firmly established as by far the richest football league in the world, a virtuous circle which meant more top players and managers, leading to more interest, leading to ever-bigger TV rights deals.
Changes to Structure
The structure of the league has not really changed all that much over the years, in fact there has only been one major alteration in 30 years. When the EPL began it was a league of 22 teams, including Oldham Athletic, who dropped out of the Football League in 2022, Coventry City and Ipswich, as well as other clubs who have not graced the top flight for many a year.
For the 1995/96 season, the number of sides in the Premier League dropped to 20. This was achieved by relegating four sides the season before and promoting just two from the second tier. This brought the English top flight more in line with other leading divisions. Authorities felt that having 22 sides diluted the quality and meant too many fixtures and this is really the only significant change to the way the PL has been run that has occurred over the years.
There have, of course, been various rule changes over the years, with many of these, such as the back-pass rule, adopted worldwide rather than just within the Premier League. More recently we have, of course, had the advent of VAR, but fundamentally nothing much has changed in the way the Premier League is organised.
That said, one other major thing of note, and again a change that brought England in line with many other top European leagues, was the introduction, of sorts, of a winter break. Though not quite the three or more weeks taken in some leagues, in 2019/20 the PL did introduce a winter break that gave teams at least some respite. It kept the integrity of England’s much-loved festive fixtures but ensured that players were able to have a brief period of recovery.
In addition, there have also been changes to how many places in the Champions League and Europa League the Premier League has been granted. As noted, these can vary from season to season but with England’s place towards the top of the UEFA co-efficient looking very secure we are unlikely to see them lose any of their spots in the immediate future.
There have been six Premier League ever-presents who were founder members back in 1992 and have never (as of the 2022/23 season) suffered relegation. These are Arsenal, Chelsea, Everton, Man United, Liverpool and Tottenham.
In terms of actually lifting the Premier League trophy there are just seven sides who have tasted glory. Given that, including the 2022/23 campaign, 50 sides have graced the EPL, that shows just how hard it is to win. The seven teams are Manchester United, who have won it a record 13 times, Man City, whose recent dominance sees them second on the list with six titles; Chelsea with five, Arsenal with three, and Blackburn, Leicester and Liverpool who all have one EPL title each.
Leicester’s title success in 2015/16 will be remembered as one of the most incredible against-the-odds victories in the history of the sport, with punters famously backing the East Midlands underdogs at 5,000/1. Blackburn Rovers’ success in 1994/95 was also a blow struck for the smaller sides, albeit one financed by huge investment from Rovers owner Jack Walker.
Overall though there is no doubting that Sir Alex Ferguson’s Man United have been the Premier League’s dominant force. Incredibly with just a couple of points extra over two seasons they would have won nine PL titles on the spin. Even so, their 13 successes overall will take a lot of catching, no matter how great this City team proves to be.
Key EPL Records
In an era that is awash with more stats than ever before, we could list countless Premier League records, firsts and incredible feats, but here are just a small selection of the most important (correct as of 31/8/22).
- Leading Goalscorer – Alan Shearer (260)
- Most Assists – Ryan Giggs (162)
- Most Clean Sheets – Petr Cech (202)
- Most Appearances – Gareth Barry (653)
- Record Transfer Fee Paid – Jack Grealish, £100m, by Man City to Aston Villa)
- Record Fee Received – Philippe Coutinho, £142m to Liverpool, from Barcelona
- Highest Attendance – 83,222, Spurs v Arsenal at Wembley, February 2018
- Most Points in Season – 100, Man City, 2017/18
- Fewest Points in a Season – 11, Derby County, 2007/08