I should start this post by saying two things:
1) I think that the strength of the English men's football pyramid is one of the best parts of the nation's game, a history of community institutions that can do tremendous good in their local areas
2) I could count the number of Football League matches I've seen in the last few years, live or on TV, on one hand, while I've watched at least a dozen matches in the top men's divisions of other European countries this season. (I'd like to blame EFL's design aesthetics for that but that's probably not entirely fair).
These two things both being true doesn't feel right, and I was interested in why this is the case for me. And what better way to investigate one's feelings than with data analysis.
A lot gets made about promotion and relegation between the Premier League and Championship, as well as the gap between the relegated teams who receive parachute payments and other EFL sides. Maybe this is true, but in terms of promotion and relegation, the Premier League has never been easy to stay in.
By my count, four out of five seasons from 2002/03 to 2006/07 saw two of three newly-promoted teams go straight back down - the big step up in quality is nothing new. The year when Fulham, Blackburn, and Bolton came up and each stayed in the top-flight for over a decade (2000/01) was a huge exception.
As well as that, there aren't really more 'yo-yo clubs' in recent years than there were at the start of the century. There are two teams who've been promoted three times in the past ten Championship seasons (not including the current one of course): Norwich and Fulham. In the first ten seasons of the 21st century, starting with 1999/2000, there were also two: Birmingham City and West Bromwich Albion. Here's another stat: in that early set of ten seasons there were 23 different teams who earned promotion to the top-flight and in the most recent ten seasons it was 21.
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Despite these similarities in pro/rel, I still feel less of a connection to the Championship and the leagues below it than I used to when I was younger.
Part of this might be TV availability. When I was younger, the Premier League was on Sky Sports, with a series of second fiddle channels struggling to get off the ground. BT Sports' success in becoming a second sports subscription for elite football (first by sustaining the rights to big Premier League games, then getting the Champions League) has meant more access to European football, as those leagues are ones that BT fill their airwaves with. It's now just a lot easier (by paid means as well as murkier unpaid means) to watch the league games of the big, shiny European teams.
However, there's something else, something that I wanted to check with data. The pool of players in the Premier League nowadays owe less of their careers to the English Football League than they used to. At the same time, they owe more of it to the rest of the 'Big Five' European leagues.
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What follows might not be the absolute best methodology, but it's a methodology - for the particularly data-minded, I'll include a link to my code at the end of the post.
We'll take all players who've played 450 minutes in the Premier League this season (up to the FA Cup third round break), the equivalent of five games, and call them 'active players'. We don't care about the others, and we particularly don't want ones who might be ageing squad-filler whose lengthy careers might skew this analysis. Using FBref data we can get the figures for all the minutes these 'active players' have played throughout their careers, in all the different leagues. (We'll discount the minutes for 2022/23, because it's basically all going to be Premier League).
Ok, now for the results.
For 2022/23's active players, the EFL (including League One and League Two) accounts for 21.4% of their total prior senior career league minutes. The rest of Europe's Big Five leagues (La Liga, Ligue 1, Serie A, Bundesliga) account for 19.3%. Pretty even, but with the EFL just on top. Most of the rest of the career minutes came in the Premier League itself.
However, I have a hunch that newly-promoted teams will skew this. They've just come from the Championship, so most of their players will have played some significant time there, and they'll have had less time to adjust their squads for the Premier League. There are different ways you could try and account for this but the easiest way is simply to cut the players on newly-promoted teams out of this analysis.
If you take the active players of the other 17 teams, the balance shifts heavily: the EFL's share drops to 17.1% while the Big Five's nudges up a little to 20%. The modern Premier League maybe owes more to Europe than the rest of the English pyramid.
We should do a comparison though. There's a chance it's been like this for a while, or not too different to it at least. I checked the same thing for 2017/18, using 1000 minutes as the cut-off for 'active players' this time, seeing as it's a full season so more players would've had the chance to reach the 450-minute mark I used for 2022/23. (When calculating the proportions of career minutes, I also didn't include the 2017/18 season - I'm basically looking at the careers of active players up to that point in time).
Before I saw the results I was fully expecting to need to go back even further to find anything significant. I was already dreading having to do the same work for the 2012/13 season just to have something to write about. But it turns out I didn't need to. Because the results in 2017/18 were just that noticeable.
For 2017/18's active players, the EFL accounted 23.6% of career minutes. Meanwhile the rest of the Big Five only accounted for just 16.4%. Comparing like with like - all 20 teams in 2017/18 to all 20 teams in 2022/23 - the EFL's career minutes share has gone from 23.6% to 21.4% over the course of 5 years while the Big Five's has gone from 16.4% to 19.3%, the gap narrowing by five percentage points. It's not a revolution, but it's still a pretty noticeable change.
We saw a moment ago that the presence or absence of newly-promoted teams made a difference to things though. Let's put the same figures together while ignoring the newly-promoted sides. The EFL's career minutes share goes from 20.4% for 2017/18's 'active players' to 17.1% for the 'active players' of the 2022/23 season. The rest of the Big Five leagues' minutes share goes from 17% to 20% in that five years. The gap was narrower to begin with but it completely flips!
The same pattern is true if you just look at the number of players who've played in the EFL and elsewhere in the Big Five as well. There are more 'active' Premier League players who've played in Europe's elite now compared to five years ago, and there are fewer who've played in the EFL.
The 'tl;dr' of it all: whichever way you cut it, the Premier League is noticeably more reliant on Europe's Big Five than it was five years ago, and less reliant on the EFL.
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You could talk a lot about why this has happened (I assume it's mostly the money flowing into the Premier League, maybe a change in scouting and transfer practices) but I'm less interested in exploring that here. This piece has been gestating for a month or more now and it's hard not to see the present footballing world through this lens when it's on your mind. Here's three examples:
Item One. Of the six Premier League managers hired mid-season (so far), one has been an interim manager made permanent (Gary O'Neil - Bournemouth), one a fellow Premier League manager (Graham Potter - Chelsea), one was a Football League manager (Nathan Jones - Southampton), while the other three came from Europe (Roberto De Zerbi, Unai Emery, Julen Lopetegui - Brighton, Aston Villa, Wolves).
Item Two. Leeds United's academy manager said to the Training Ground Guru website recently that he thinks English football should reconsider B teams. Part of this is about loan rules in England, where Premier League teams can't do loan dealings outside of a transfer window while EFL clubs can, but part of the whole B team dynamic is about Premier League teams having an outsized degree of power and squad strength in comparison to the rest of the nation's pyramid. As several people said when I tweeted about this, maybe players would get more first-team football if they weren't hoarded at Premier League academies in the first place.
Item Three. The Athletic expanded their football coverage for La Liga with seven new hires this past week, including two club-specific writers each for Real Madrid and Barcelona. Grace Robertson quote-tweeted the news saying (I think completely correctly): "Felt like this was a no brainer for a while. There has to be a bigger audience for English language coverage of Real and Barça than most British clubs.". To be clear, the tweet doesn't match exactly with what this newsletter has been talking about, as 'English language coverage' includes the US and everywhere else, but it's a similar subject; nowadays, even for an English audience, would there be more money for The Athletic in Spanish duopoly coverage or Championship play-off race coverage? What direction is that balance travelling in?
There's something, an idea, I'm grasping at here that I can't quite hit. It's a somewhat popular rhetorical thing to say at the moment that the 'Super League' already exists, it's just the Premier League. And I guess this isn't just because England's top-flight is where so much money is and so many top managers are - and consequently, through both, so many top players - but because the influence of the rest of the English football pyramid that the league is still supposedly attached to is waning and waning. And so if, like me, you watch the Premier League because it's the top men's league of your country, why would you feel more of an attachment to a Championship game than a top-half Big Five league game? It's the latter set of teams who are the Premier League's true peers, and increasingly the latter set of teams who are providing the Premier League with a player pool.
(It's worth noting that this isn't entirely the same as the 'are English players getting opportunities' discussion, given that English players can play domestically or abroad at any stage of their adult career, although it's naturally intertwined).
I can't completely blame this pattern of changing playing histories for my tendency to not watch much Championship football. Some of it is the design aesthetics (that logo, those fonts!). Most of it is that I just don't have the headspace. But I'm reassured that the data seems to back up a gut feeling I'd had: if I tuned in, not only would I be unlikely to watch a team that'll spend time in the Premier League (although the odds haven't changed that much there), I'm increasingly less likely to be watching players who'll spend time there in future too. That's not the only, certainly not the main, reason to watch the EFL of course, but highlights the divide.
It'll be interesting to see what this looks like in five years' time. A heads up for whoever does that work: we'll have to contend with the added factor of Brexit in our analysis then as well.
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