Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Send the Bums Down

In my experience, relegation is the most curious aspect of European soccer to novice fans of the sport and often for diametrically opposed reasons. I was asked about it within the last week and inquisitive party expressed a fascination for the concept. I won't go as far as to say he was calling for its implementation in all major sports in the United States, but the very idea of a league that not only could, but always would change members was a concept that stuck with him. On the other hand, I have been told that relegation is the height of idiocy, that it is an unjust punishment for a team struggling for just one year, that it is a farce that anyone with the money to buy a team would ever voluntarily enter an agreement whereby they could lose millions of dollars by being demoted, and so on and so on. Regardless of a person's specific stance, it appears that relegation is a topic worthy of debate and discussion, so why not engage in that here? I will not lie or try to hide bias: I will be presenting you with an opinion fully in favor of relegation. I feel that it helps much more than it hurts and creates interest and tension, which is what sports are supposed to be full of anyway. Also for the record, I think that it would be nigh impossible to introduce it to American sports as it would require a radical overhaul for leagues set in their ways and (mostly) making money as it is. But with the state of sports in our country this makes as much sense as debating a college football playoff system, so fuck it, let's go.

Honestly, I think the strongest argument in favor of relegation is what occurs in professional sports in the United States toward the end of the regular season. I'm not going to sit here and tell you that this is a boring time of year. Of course not. Teams are fighting for their playoff lives, doing everything they can to make that final push and get in. Day-to-day, week-to-week everything changes, and then everything changes again, and then everything reverts to "normal" except that one massive shift that no one saw coming. It's a great time to be a fan, if a nerve-wracking one. But that's at the top of the league, where the big kids and the scrappy younger siblings are battling it out. What about the bottom? The truth is that it's much uglier.

For teams that no longer have a chance at making the playoffs (and sometimes even the teams that might make the playoffs but definitely aren't going to go far) the good thing, the best thing to do is to lose and finish last, all in hopes of landing a franchise changing player in the draft. That's the name of the game, that's that goal. Losing. Not that teams would go as far as intentionally losing. Of course not. That would damage the integrity of the game, go against the nature of the competitive athlete, and all those other things that we want to agree with but actually have a creeping suspicion about. But at this point it truly is in the best interest of teams to be a punching bag for those with something, rather than someone, to play for this year.

Look at the NBA right now. The top two picks in the draft are seen as borderline sure things and the top five to ten (depending on who you ask) could all be difference makers for the right team next year. The teams in the lottery range (any team not making the playoffs) have no reason to do anything except move down the standings and improve their odds of being in a position to draft someone they need. It's at the point where Grantland is running an updated analysis of this tanking process and not only is it interesting, but it's valid and important work. For those teams without a chance in the NFL, where there is no lottery system, meaning that the position you finish in is your guaranteed drafting position, there is even less of a barrier to tanking as you are sure of what you are "earning." As of now it looks like Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III, two supposed franchise quarterbacks, will be the top two picks in the draft, and the only way to acquire either of them, aside from paying through the nose in players/draft picks/first born sons, is to be one of the worst teams in football. At one point during the "Suck for Luck" campaign Miami Dolphins fans were actually angry with their team for winning games. The sad thing is, it was the logical reaction to have. Even hockey, my second favorite sport with goalies, offsides, and flamboyant European divers, isn't immune to this phenomenon. After winning the draft lottery this year, the Edmonton Oilers will be picking first overall for the third consecutive year. Sadly, this is the only way the Oilers, a team that Silky Johnson could only describe as "bombed out and depleted," could make themselves relevant again. That's what we have. A system that encourages teams and fans to want to lose when the top of the mountain, or even that nice looking ski lodge somewhere in the middle, is no longer in sight.

So what does relegation offer that is different? Well, it's slightly different in that if you finish in the bottom three positions in the league, you get kicked out. Yup. Kicked. Out. Think of it like Major League Baseball and the associated minor leagues. There's the English Premier League (MLB), then the Championship, League 1, and League 2 (AAA, AA, and A ball) in descending order of prestige. At the end of each season, the teams with the three lowest point totals in the EPL are relegated to the Championship while the teams with the three highest point totals in the Championship (well, two highest point totals plus the winner of a mini-tournament, but let's keep our eye on the prize) are promoted to take their place. This happens throughout the league system after every season so there is a consistent danger of being relegated or thrill of being promoted. In our American example, last year the Houston Astros, Seattle Mariners, and my beloved Minnesota Twins had the worst three records in MLB, so they would be dropped down to AAA while the top three finishing AAA teams would move up to the majors. The Twins had just won back-to-back Central Division titles two years ago, by the way. So this process makes you scratch and claw for positioning not just if you're one of the best teams trying to make a run at a title, but throughout the ranks of the league.

That's the main benefit to having a relegation/promotion system: everyone cares about the end of the season because the price for not caring just might be moving down to a less prestigious league with smaller facilities, less money for wages, and a lower standard of play. There are some teams that have so little talent that they can't help but be relegated because their best isn't good enough to beat someone else's "disinterested" (thinking of Wolverhampton this year). But those teams are certainly going to be trying their damnedest not to be relegated, so every game they're in is going to be a fight. Right now there are six teams that have a good chance to be relegated (more if you use those who are still mathematically in the hunt, but those are a bit of a stretch), which means there are six teams playing for their league lives rather than dogging each game, trying to tank to get players, and generally being absolute pushovers for those at the top. It means that the end of the season is that much more interesting because you can't just mark wins on the schedule as a top team as the worst teams can be the most dangerous to play due to desperation. In back to back weeks, Wigan, who was in one of the three relegation spots, beat Manchester United (currently first in the league) and Arsenal (currently third in the league) to move five points clear of the relegation zone. You don't have that with the Hornets in the NBA, last year's Colts, or the miserable Columbus Blue Jackets. Survival mode brings out the best in these weaker teams and generally makes the end of the season more unpredictable, intense, and exciting. And as fans, isn't that what we want?

Game Notes

-Though I wrote this article about relegation inspired by Wigan beating Arsenal 2-1 at Emirates and thus further escaping the relegation zone, it is not just desperation that is driving Wigan forward. For a team that has spent much of this season looking sure to be down in the Championship next year, the Lactics have put together a marvelous run including the aforementioned wins against Man U and Arsenal, as well as a game that Chelsea absolutely stole from them with not one but two goals that should have been disallowed for offsides. I could provide a more detailed analysis of what has actually changed, but it would pale in compared to this excellent work by Ned, a friend of a friend who writes for ESPN Soccernet's Wigan blog and an all-around good guy. Check it out and continue to cheer on a surprisingly strong Wigan squad who look to be in the Premiership for at least another year.

-Aside from the damaging loss of three points as well as the hit to the reputation of Arsenal for losing to Wigan at home, Monday's game was painful for another reason: the loss of Mikel Arteta. Arteta went down with an ankle injury early in the match and since then it has been revealed that he will miss 6-8 weeks, or the rest of the Gunners' season. First of all, this is a tough loss for Arsenal as Arteta worked very well as a calming and directing force in the back of midfield, holding possession and guiding play. Arsenal can win without him, but the Gunners seem more composed with him in the squad. Second, I'm sorry to all other Arsenal fans because this injury can only be due to my blog post last Monday in which I sung Arteta's praises and labeled him a quality signing for the team. I had no idea that I had such abilities, so please, accept my deepest apologies. As an act of contrition, I will be preparing an in-depth analysis of the genius of Juan Mata in advance of Saturday's match against Chelsea. May I only use my powers for good in the future.

-I often feel strange because I don't discuss the talent and quality of goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny even though he has emerged as one of the best keepers in the Premier League this year. Strange because he's so obviously important to the team but we don't often talk about him because while he is good for a couple of fantastic saves per game, Arsenal's defense doesn't normally get peppered to the point where Szczesny is making save after glorious save, earning himself man of the match honors. And now the reason I'm talking about him is for the saves that he couldn't quite make, even though he isn't at fault. On both Wigan goals the Polish national did everything he could to shut down the excellent chances opposing strikers were presented with, but came up just short as his pounces and deflections were not enough to keep the ball out of the back of the net. The images we are left with are Szczesny's frustration at his inability to save the day, followed by that slow motion head swivel as he seeks the culpable defender and place the fear of god in him. I would be worried by a lesser keeper, worried that he would lose his cool or throw his defense under the bus. But not Szczesny. He has a fantastic attitude and though his is undoubtedly arrogant, it's arrogance begot by outstanding play instead of an overly inflated sense of self worth despite having done nothing to back it up (looking at you Nicklas Bendtner). I'm happy to have him in goal and even happier to know that we'll have him moving forward. As Always, Go Gunners.

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