The Basics: An English Premier League Primer, Part I

Author’s Note: Even though this is part one, it’s the second part I wrote, because I realized that I had some preliminary ground to cover. This primer has quickly grown beyond my control, and may well develop into a seven part series complete with emotionally draining story arcs, passionate romance, and multiple jarring twists. You’ve been warned.

Why You’re Here

I’m going to assume that if you clicked on the link for this post, you have at least a passing interest in soccer. If you hoped to, or thought you might find a passionate defense of the game, something designed to convince you once and for all that the world’s most popular sport deserves your attention, you won’t. That’s a different post for a different day. If you’re here, your interest is already piqued, and you’re ready to learn something about the world’s top soccer league.


The EPL (also known as the Barclay’s Premier League, if you’re into the corporate thing) is the top division in English football and part of the FA (Football Association), along with three lower divisions. The EPL’s 20 teams play a 38-game season (each club plays every other club twice, once home and once away) from August to May. The team that rests at the top of the league standings – or table – at season’s end is crowned champion.

How to Win

Standings in the Premier League are determined by a points system designed to emphasize playing to win games rather than draw by offering winning clubs three points, losing clubs zero points, and each club a point apiece for a draw. Therefore, the best possible point total during a given campaign would be 114, although the title winners usually amass between 80 and 90 points. Goal differential is used to break ties.

Promotion and Relegation

Soccer leagues’ systems of operation are different in one key way from American sports leagues: if a club finishes in the bottom three of any division in English soccer, that club is demoted, or relegated, to a lower division for the next season. Conversely, if a club finishes in the top three, they are promoted into the next division up, trading places with those clubs relegated. The implications for promotion and relegation are obviously immense, not just competitively, but also economically. Being in the Premier League means bigger sponsors, increased ticket sales (and prices), and the opportunity to play against some of the best clubs in the world. Promotion can secure the finances needed to sign better players and upgrade facilities, while relegation can cost teams their talent and visibility. Former titans of the First Division (what we now call the EPL) Leeds United have been toiling in the bowels of English football for the better part of seven years as a result of relegation.  The race to avoid the drop is often as harrowing as the title chase because of the desperation with which clubs in the danger zone (I know you just thought about Top Gun, it’s OK) play.

Transfers and Loans

Like in every major team sport, players move around a lot in pro soccer. Probably more so, actually, because there is no salary cap, and players have so much power that they practically trade themselves. Transfers are equivalent to trades in function, except that unlike in American sports, players are actually almost never “traded” in the sense that a team gets a player for one that they give up, hence the slight difference in verb. Transferred players move from one club, and, often, one league to another for a fee set by the club with which they’re under contract. The team that gets the player then negotiates a salary with him. Players are treated much more like stocks than in American sports because an over-performing player is a valuable commodity, especially if the club hopes to finance the acquisition of more talent to protect themselves from relegation.

Loans are different. A loaned player is essentially allowed to move to another team while remaining under contract with their original club. The primary function of a loan is to give an up and coming – or old and doddering – player the chance to get regular first-team minutes with a lesser club. It’s like Triple-A in a lot of ways, except that the player on loan can come back and bite you in the butt if the club that loaned them out has to play the club they’ve been loaned to. Loans often run for the duration of a season, but loaned players can usually be recalled at any time to their original club.

Rules and Regs

The EPL’s games, like those of international soccer and every other pro league I know of, run for 90 minutes. At the end of each 45-minute half, the referee can add what’s called “injury” or “stoppage” time. Since the clock never stops running in pro soccer, the additional time roughly makes up for the time lost during the course of the half due to player injury, substitution, or even goals. Stoppage time operates no differently from the rest of the game, and when the ref blows the whistle, the half (or game) ends.

Regular season games ending in a draw do not go into overtime (or extra time, as it’s called in soccer), nor do they end in shootouts because they are not part of a tournament. I know this is the big American gripe about soccer, but because of substitution rules, it wouldn’t be possible to go into extra time at the end of every game where the score is tied. The players would be run into the ground and the quality of league play would suffer. And frankly, shootouts are terrible. They’re like watching a great basketball game get decided by a free throw shooting contest. If the league can avoid shootouts, they should, and giving both teams credit for a tough match is a perfectly fine way to address the issue. Tournament games (more on those in a moment), however, utilize the extra time and shootout protocols to ensure a clear winner in their matches because one team has to move to the next round. Also, there are no playoffs in the EPL. The regular season title is the biggest domestic prize, followed by the tournament competitions noted below.

Teams are allowed only three substitutes per game, in line with FIFA rules, and once a player comes out of the game, he’s out for good.

Other Competitions

Premier League teams compete not only in a 38-game regular season, but also in a series of other domestic and international competitions. It helps to understand this so that when you’re looking for a good fixture to watch, but all you can find is something called Crystal Palace playing Norwich City, you’ll know why.

The Carling Cup – Also generically known as the League Cup, this competition includes all twenty EPL clubs and the 92 clubs from the second, third, and fourth tiers of English football. The tournament is single elimination, and Premier League clubs don’t join the fray until the second round. The Carling Cup’s stature has dwindled in recent years, largely because Alex Ferguson is a tool of the proliferation of major European competition like the Europa League and the Champions League.

The FA Cup – The FA Cup (the final of which will be played this Saturday between Liverpool and Chelsea) is the most prestigious domestic tournament in English Football and involves all 20 Premier League teams, plus more than 700 others (this probably resembles the Little League World Series more than any other sporting event, because any team assembled under the Football Association banner is free to enter). Like in the League Cup, the field is winnowed through preliminary rounds before the EPL clubs join in. One of the most intriguing, frustrating part of the FA Cup process is that fixtures and home teams are decided through random draw rather than seeding, so a powerhouse club like Manchester United could play another top club like Liverpool in the third round (which happened this year), while sad little Crawley Town and Hull City (both lower division teams) play in the same round. Usually, bigger clubs win out, but the draw format provides lesser clubs with the chance to play Cinderella.

The  UEFA Champions League – The Champions League isn’t really a Premier League competition, but the top four clubs at the end of the EPL season qualify for Champions League football, a major financial and competitive advantage. Big players tend to want to play in the Champions League, so the teams who qualify from the Premier League are more easily able to lure quality transfers. Likewise, teams who fail to qualify for the UCL – or, to some extent, its lesser cousin The Europa League – have a hard time in some cases retaining their biggest stars. Because of the Champions League, you’ll often hear commentators and announcers talk about “the race for fourth,” as qualifying for the UCL is seen as an accomplishment in itself.

Where to Go From Here

Call your cable provider and order Fox Soccer Channel or find a good English-style pub that opens at 9:30 on Saturday and Sunday mornings to show EPL games. You know enough to get started. Find a big fixture on the schedule and dive right in (only don’t phrase it that way; soccer people get notoriously touchy when you bring up diving).

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Categories: Ground Ball Democracy

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