Fewer and Fewer Clubs in Europe Have Anything Left to Play For

While there are some thrilling title, Champions League, and relegation races occurring in European football leagues, a majority of clubs are stuck in the middle of the table, with little real reason to push for results  over the rest of the season. Storied entities like Manchester United, Inter Milan, and AC Milan are among the 53% of sides in the Premiership, Bundesliga, La Liga, Seria A, and Eredivisie who seem certain to neither relegate nor qualify for the 2014-2015 UEFA Champions League via their final rank in the 2013-14 league table.

The tricky part here is defining the point at which a club fits this categorization. Technically, Tottenham could win out, reach 74 points, and while everyone above them would magically fall apart. Thus Spurs aren’t mathematically eliminated from taking the title (despite a 50-goal-difference gap with Liverpool, who already have 74), but in reality they are enormously unlikely to reach that point total, and even if they did it would probably only put them in the running for a Champions League spot, which is far from guaranteeing one.

I will simply look at the difference between each club’s points per game (PPG) thusfar and the PPG from here on they would need to reach their nearest point target, be it for their league’s title, last UCL spot, or relegation avoidance. Sound familiar? That’s because it is an extension of my interactive league tables. This is rather basic, which is why I am being rather liberal in setting my PPG change cutoff at 0.55. For example, West Bromwich Albion look rather safe on 32 points with a need for only 3 more points, but they are marked as “at risk of relegation” because their 1.0 PPG is just a hair too close to the 0.5 PPG needed over their last 6 fixtures. If you feel that 0.55 is too high or low, type in a different number between 0.2 and 1.0 in the interactive illustration below.

Alongside filters on this page, the categorization of clubs here also interacts with point targets on every other tab of the Dashboard (It will also update every time I fold future results into the Dashboard.). Lower the Premiership’s relegation point target to 34, flip back to Standing Rigidity, and you will see Norwich and WBA happily join the Pointless. Within that category, clubs like Man United and both Milanese superclubs, must find it disgraceful to be alongside clubs like Stoke, QPR, and Genoa who are delighted that they have nothing left to play for at this stage. That is the reality for an abundance of teams, though, left only to play spoiler to their rivals and evaluate their approach for next year. Add in the clubs already stuck in on either extreme of the table, and we see that 70% of Europe is simply playing out the string.

Admittedly, this analysis does ignore Europa League qualification, but don’t most fans do that anyway? Besides, Europa qualification via national cups and other criteria hold enough sway that I didn’t feel these spots were worth bothering to track in detail.

I don’t bring this up to taunt or praise, but largely to inform neutrals who want to decide which match to watch. Obviously, everyone knows that Manchester City’s visit to Anfield on Sunday will play a massive role in the eventual crowning of a Premiership champion, but the trick is usually in deciding between the mass of synchronized fixtures on Saturday. Palace-Villa and Stoke-Newcastle don’t hold any importance, and WBA-Spurs teeters on the edge on pointlessness. Fulham-Norwich is the top choice for real implications, and arguments could also be made for Sunderland-Everton and Southampton-Cardiff.

For the record, here are the members of the Pointless Plethora as things stand today, and I will check this list in a couple weeks to see if any rallied or swooned enough to alter their current station dramatically.

The Pointless Plethora as of the 8th of April, 2014.

The Pointless Plethora as of the 8th of April, 2014.

The biggest weakness of this analysis is that it does not adjust for strength of schedule. That can be very important, especially if you use simulations to inform wagering on outcomes. However, with so few matches left, I prefer to be concerned with general possibilities. Strange swings of (mis)fortune can be enormous factors over five-to-seven matches, defying even the smartest prognostications, so I say let’s concentrate on where teams really stand, focus on those in contention for important standings, and enjoy the ride.

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