The Premier League will convene Thursday for what is arguably the most important meeting in the competition's history. And the main focus will center on deciding how to conclude the current season halted by the coronavirus outbreak.
UEFA announced Tuesday the postponement of EURO 2020 until the summer of 2021 freeing up time this summer for leagues to pick back up and conclude. This, though, assumes the virus is under control by then and normal soccer, and life, and can resume.
Are there any perfect ways to end the season? Of course not. You can't please everyone regardless of the decision you make. All the options now, such as scrapping the season, ending it now and accepting the table as is, or waiting and finishing it in full at an unspecified time in the future all have their benefits and drawbacks. But there's no way to make it fair for everyone.
Even waiting and playing out the rest of the season has its issues. For example, is it "fair" Tottenham will get all their starting forwards back? In theory they should've missed the end of the campaign through injury, no? I digress.
Since it can't really be "fair" for everyone, why not make it fun for everyone while maintaining the integrity of the results that have happened and remaining true to the sport? And for good measure, we'll throw in some flair.
Two things to say beforehand. First, Liverpool get the title. They're 25 points ahead of the pack. Sure, could they have blown it? Mathematically, and technically, it is possible. But if you have to say "technically" for something, that means everyone knows the REAL truth. And that truth right now is Liverpool are champions. Congrats!
Secondly, this system may not work for every league and every country. And it doesn't have to. This is specifically with the Premier League in mind during these extraordinary circumstances.
And thirdly, I just realized I should include that this playoff format is inspired by Sports Illustrated's Brian Straus and his idea for MLS playoffs.
Okay, here we go.
Premier League European Playoff
Who gets in? And how's it set up?
After Liverpool, let's take the next eight Premier League teams based on point totals from the season currently on hold - Manchester City, Leicester, Chelsea, Manchester United, Sheffield United, Wolves, Tottenham, and Arsenal - and make two groups of four, World Cup style with a single round robin. Then, the top two from each group advance to the "semifinals" and "final."
But remember, Liverpool already secured one Champions League place with their title. So, only three spots are up for grabs. I won't spoil it for you just yet. But let's just say the "richest game in football," the Championship promotion playoff final, will look like a $20 bill to Bill Gates. Miniscule.
Now, because City may not be able to play in Europe due to their ban by UEFA, that means fifth place in the league could have, in theory, been good enough to qualify for the Champions League. Arsenal currently sit just five points back of fifth place Manchester United, a gap small enough to close had the season continued. That's why Arsenal and everyone above them get in.
Why not Burnley, who sit only one point below the Gunners? Stopping with Arsenal makes it a nice, clean, eight team playoff. Simple as that. Plus, would Burnley really qualify for Europe had the season played out like normal? Slimmer odds than Leicester's title win.
Okay, let's dive a little deeper into this, starting with the groups. Manchester City and Leicester will be our seeded teams, currently sitting second and third in the frozen Premier League table respectively. The lowest ranked of the eight participating clubs, Arsenal, go into Manchester City's group, the highest ranked team, by default. Eat your heart out broadcasters, Mikel Arteta will face Pep Guardiola.
Tottenham, the second lowest ranked team in the playoff, go into Leicester's group, the second highest ranked team, also by default.
From here, we can allocate the remaining four teams to the groups like penalties, ABAB or ABBA, starting with the lowest remaining position in the table, Sheffield United.
Or, we can do something really exciting - let Man City choose who they want next in their group. Letting City choose the other team(s) in the group creates hugely interesting strategies.
Maybe they don't want to face Wolves who always give them a hard time. Or they could want to avoid Sheffield United and their tricky overlapping center backs. What if City believe they match up better with Chelsea, even though the Blues are a better team?
And like penalties, Man City can choose and then Leicester ABAB-style or ABBA-style.
Matter of fact, let's get real wild and do this like the NFL draft. Teams, on live national TV, race against a 10 minute clock to decide who they want in their group. March Madness bracket reveals get televised along with draws for the Champions League, World Cup, etc. This would be the same, only better with teams picking their opponents.
To carry this out to its logical conclusion, let's make some groups for the sake of argument. In Group 1, we'll have Man City, Chelsea, Sheffield United, and Arsenal in order from best Prem record to worst. And that will matter soon. That leaves Leicester, Manchester United, Wolves, and Tottenham in Group 2.
In the group, everyone will play everyone once like an international tournament. Then, the two clubs with the highest point totals move on. And if needed, all the usual tie breakers will be used.
Simple. Got it all taken care of, right? Not yet. Let's jump into the details.
As seeded teams, City and Leicester get the reward of playing all three games at home based on their Premier League records. On the flip side, Arsenal and Tottenham will play all three group games away for having the worst Prem records of the participating teams.
As for the rest, Chelsea and Man United were the second highest ranked teams in their respective groups meaning they have two games at home, while Sheffield United and Wolves will host one game and travel for two.
Eat your heart out again broadcasters because Arteta not only plays City, but returns to the Etihad in his first game against Pep Guardiola. In addition, we have a London Derby with Chelsea hosting Arsenal.
In the other group, Jose Mourinho returns to Old Trafford again with Spurs, having lost in the league earlier this season to his former team. Plus, you'd have new United talisman Bruno Fernandes going up against a plethora of countrymen in a Portuguese-heavy Wolves side.
The Premier League table matters a lot now, doesn't it?
Non-Traditional, But Amazing "Semifinals"
Let's say Man City and Chelsea advance first and second respectively from their group. And in the other group, Leicester and Manchester United get through. From here on out, these teams and results are all hypothetical and used solely as an example conclusion.
That sets up a Manchester derby in one "semifinal," as the top team in Group 1, City, face the second place team in Group 2, United. And then we have Chelsea v Leicester in the other "semifinal."
Now, there are plenty of fun options here because there are four teams remaining and only three spots. But remember, it's not a champion we're seeking. Instead, the odd man out, which makes this really interesting.
We can do neutral site for both "semis" at Wembley like the FA Cup now. We can even follow the old FA Cup semifinals of yesteryear that used neutral site venues throughout the country. So for example, the Manchester Derby could be played at Tottenham's new stadium while Chelsea and Leicester play at Anfield.
Or to give more of a cup competition feel, one leg "semis" with the higher seed hosting is also an option.
Another popular, more traditional, choice would be two legged semifinals with the higher seed hosting the second leg at home, similar to the Champions League or Carabao Cup semifinals. And if they are two legged "semifinals," away goals should count for normal time, but not extra time. That's something MLS gets right and should be used here (as well as ALL two legged ties, not just now during the coronavirus outbreak).
Again, though, we're trying to go wild. As big as we can. With our "semifinals," let's make them two legged. BUT! There's a catch.
If the higher seeded team wins the first leg outright away from home, they win the tie automatically and the second leg doesn't take place. So, if City go to Old Trafford and pound the snot out of United in the first leg, it's over.
This avoids both teams parking the bus in a cagey first leg where no one wants to mess up, instead incentivizing them to go for the win.
And remember. These aren't traditional "semifinals" anyways. Here, the "semifinal" winners go home. They qualify for the Champions League. So winning the first leg of the "semifinal" outright means they can end their season.
The Real Richest Game In Soccer - The "Final"
The "semifinal" losers don't go home. No, they will have a showdown for the final UCL spot. AT WEMBLEY.
For example Chelsea v Manchester United at Wembley for the final Champions League spot?! That would be massive! You can't tell me you wouldn't love that!
If the Championship playoff final is the richest games in soccer because of the winner gets promoted to the Premier League, what would this be? The goldmine and oil deposit of soccer games with the winner going to the Champions League?
That would be insane to watch. Sign me up right now. I'll sacrifice my future first born (not really) to make it happen.
While the winner of this "final" goes on to join the others in the Champions League, the loser receives the first Europa League spot. The third place teams from each group then get the remaining two slots. That, though, is contingent upon this year's FA Cup crowning a champion and whether or not that winner has already qualified for the Champions League through the playoff.
Much like a normal year, the FA Cup winner's spot in the Europa League will go to the next highest playoff finisher if the FA Cup winner has already qualified through the playoff for the Champions League or Europa League.
Also along those lines, if Manchester City's European ban is upheld after they had already qualified for a European spot, you just bump everyone below them up one place. If necessary, the fourth place finishers in the groups will have their results determine who gets the last Europa League spot.
This is the best playoff system imaginable. It recognizes and rewards the season's results by giving home field advantage in the group stage. Plus, it also gives everyone a chance to settle it on the field. Unfair or not, no one will forget the games that have already happened so it's not really viable to just throw them out.
Additionally, this format has so many juicy match ups for fans and broadcasters. And after an unexpected, extended stoppage in the season, this pent up energy will explode with euphoria with a playoff like this.
In the "semifinals," every idea provides its own special twist, staying true to the sport, such as two legged ties or even away goals, while eliminating the dullness.
At the same time, it will conclude with a gargantuan game at Wembley with every eyeball glued to the screen as two teams battle it out for the final Champions League spot.
If the Premier League doesn't have time to finish their full slate of games after the coronavirus outbreak subsides, this is by far the best and most fun way to determine the European places.
Premier League Relegation/Championship Promotion
Of course, more than European places are on the line. As for relegation from the Premier League, only eight points separate Brighton in 15th all the way down to Norwich in 20th, meaning anyone could go down. To have them duke it out on the field, a one group, single round robin following the same home and away format used for the European places playoff group stage would work wonders.
After playing all five group games, the bottom three teams in this playoff get relegated. Or, there could even be a final between third and fourth place finishers in the relegation playoff group, if we want to get wild. That, though, seems a bit unnecessary.
In the second tier, Leeds and West Brom had built up comfortable leads at the top of the Championship table when the season hit pause. Normally, the top two get promoted automatically. And let's keep that. Sure, we could make them battle for promotion in a group with the others, but you'll see why not in a moment.
For the final promotion spot, the Championship can stick to their normal four team playoff. Or, they can get more creative with a six team group like the Premier League relegation playoff suggestion above. The Championship could also do a larger playoff, similar to European place playoff as they too have several more teams in the hunt for promotion than just four.
But if you want to get really, wild. And I mean, really, really wild. You could have a one-off for the final Premier League slot like the Bundesliga and 2. Bundesliga.
For example, in the Premier League relegation playoff, the top three teams after group play survive. At the bottom, let's imagine Norwich and Aston Villa finish last; they automatically get relegated.
But the team that finishes above them in the group in fourth, let's use Bournemouth, doesn't get relegated just yet. They, instead, will have a one-off with the winner of the Championship playoff, say Fulham.
Essentially, you could have 12, or more, teams between the Premier League and Championship all battling it out on the field for promotion and relegation, capped off with the crown jewel at Wembley, still giving broadcasters the "richest game in football." Only this time, it's better with a Premier League and Championship team fighting it out.
Would this work?
Could this actually work? Well, it's all contingent upon when the coronavirus outbreak dies down and leagues can resume. Is it the beginning of April, as the current suspensions say? Or will they have to push back more towards the summer?
Will they be able to finish the Champions League and Europa League tournaments in that time, wrapping up everything domestic and continental before June 30, the day UEFA would like it all to finish up by?
Everything really depends on the coronavirus at this point. Everything has already gone haywire because of the virus, so why not just end it in a fun, whacky, and most importantly maybe, a cathartic way after weeks or possibly months of being cooped up at home with no soccer.
We are going through unprecedented times, both in the soccer world and the real world right now. These playoff ideas may not work outside the Premier League. Hell, they may not work ever again under other circumstances.
Everyone at UEFA, the Premier League, and every other league will try to find the most "fair" way to end the season. But fair may not be possible at this point.
This playoff system isn't striving to be "fair" above all, although that is an element of it. This most certainly is, though, the most exciting and tantalizing way to finish this season.