Should the A-League return to a four team finals system?
With the A-League finals series drawing towards a conclusion this weekend, it struck me that an interesting pattern has emerged over the first seven seasons of the A-League in regards to the finals system. Taking into account this weekend’s Brisbane vs Perth match, the seven grand finals since the inaugural season in 2005-06 have always been fought out between two top-3 teams:
You can see below that over the history of the league, no team who qualified for the finals in 4th place or below has ever gone on to compete in the Grand Final. Which, when you think about it, is a fair reflection and result. The top two (or even three) teams should be the best in the league that year, and so it makes sense that they are always the teams fighting it out in the Grand Final. Of course, this raises the ire of traditionalists who argue then that what is the point of the finals system if the top teams always make it. Fair point, but not one I’m going to address in this article.
|Season||GF teams||Ladder positions|
|2005-06||Sydney, Central Coast||2nd, 3rd|
|2006-07||Mel Victory, Adelaide||1st, 2nd|
|2007-08||Central Coast, Newcastle||1st, 2nd|
|2008-09||Mel Victory, Adelaide||1st, 2nd|
|2009-10||Sydney, Melbourne||1st, 2nd|
|2010-11||Brisbane, Central Coast||1st, 2nd|
|2011-12||Brisbane, Perth||2nd, 3rd|
Now, in the first four seasons of the A-League ending in 2008-09, the A-League worked from a 4-team finals system, where an equal number of teams qualified for the finals than missed out. From 2009-10 onwards, with the introduction of expansion teams, this system was changed to a 6-team finals system. A system where more teams qualified for finals than missed out:
|Season||5th, 6th teams||Progress in finals|
|2009-10||Perth, Newcastle||First week, Second week|
|2010-11||Mel Victory, Wellington||First week, First week|
|2011-12||Sydney, Mel Heart||First week, First week|
As you can see from the above table, since the 6-team finals system was introduced, a team from the two additionally included spots (5th and 6th) has only ever progressed as far as the second week of the finals – and that only happened once, and only after Newcastle were victorious over Gold Coast in a penalty shootout. The reason? Well, the 6-team system is designed in a way that makes it very difficult for the 5th and 6th teams to make it all the way to the grand final. And so it should! But given the relative failure of these teams to make any substantial dent on the final series over the last few seasons, what exactly is the advantage of the 6-team system over the 4-team system? Why not just go back to the 4-team system that worked well over the first four seasons of the A-League?
The frustrating point is that the 6-team system, in a 10-team competition, is simply rewarding mediocrity. In 2009-10, Newcastle had a goal difference of -11, and lost more games than they won. Wellington were in the same situation in 2010-11. Sydney also had a negative goal difference in 2011-12.
And all three of those teams played finals football!
The finals series should be something that is coveted, something that is hard earned and something that requires success over the 25 previous weeks in order to qualify. Teams shouldn’t be qualifying when they’ve had a season with more disappointments than successes. And there shouldn’t be more teams qualifying for the finals than don’t. A maximum of 50% of league teams should qualify for the finals – it’s the way it was for the first four seasons, the results and statistics back it up, and it worked. 1st place plays 2nd over two legs, 3rd place plays 4th over two legs. The winner of 3rd vs 4th plays the loser of 1st vs 2nd, and the winner of that goes on to play the winner of 1st vs 2nd in the Grand Final. Simple! And, just like with the 6-team system, all of the top 4 teams are guaranteed at least one final in front of their home fans.
So, with Western Sydney coming into the fold next season and Gold Coast (and possibly Newcastle) both leaving the competition, the FFA should take a serious look at the structure of the finals system. Do they want to continue rewarding unsuccessful teams with finals berths, or do they want to make the finals into a high-quality, four-week period to excitingly cap off a thrilling season. I know which system I support…
Let us know what you think! Should the A-League return to a 4-team finals system, or stick with the current 6-team system?