Understanding the Premier League

Your Guide to Making Sense of the League Table

A soccer match in a stadium

Jon Candy/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0

The Premier League is composed of 20 teams. Each of them plays the other twice during the season — once at home and once on the road — to accumulate a total of 38 games. Whichever team finishes with the most points at the end of those games (there are no playoffs in the Premier League) is the champion.

Most teams play at 3 p.m. Greenwich Mean Time on Saturday afternoons, with one game usually set for 12:30 p.m., one for later in the evening, a couple set on Sunday and one on Monday night.

The Points System

Teams are awarded three points for a victory, one for a draw, and none for a loss.

The number of goals they score in a game has no impact on the number of points awarded. There is also no such thing as overtime during the Premier League season — the result after 90 minutes plus time added on for stoppages is what goes in the books.

Teams who have the same number of points are separated by the tie-breaker known as goal difference (the total number of goals conceded in the season subtracted from the number of goals scored). If that is not enough to separate two teams, you can compare goals scored. Further tie-breakers are seldom required beyond that.

The League Table

Even if a team cannot finish first in the Premier League, there are still things to play for. The top four finishers all qualify for the following season’s Champions League. And for those who finish fifth and sixth, there is also the promise of European soccer: they both qualify for the Europa League.

Premier League prize money is also determined based on a team’s finishing position.

But the stakes are arguably just as high at the bottom of the standings.

Staying Up

Every year, the bottom three finishers are relegated from the Premier League to the division below — the Championship. The impact of relegation on a club is massive since it means a drop-off in competition, but most importantly, a drop-off in television revenues and marketing. Those teams are replaced in the Premier League for the next season by three of the best teams from the Championship.

The traditional benchmark for safety from relegation is reaching 40 points. Similarly, being bottom of the table at Christmas — usually the midpoint of the season — is considered to be a death sentence. It is extremely rare for a team with over 40 points to go down and for the Christmas bottom-dwellers to stay up.