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Ending the Season: How Should the DFL & DFB Finish the Bundesliga Season?

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The Season Could End With 1⁄4 of Games Left to Play. Here’s How We Fix That!

Coronavirus - Borussia Dortmund stadium Photo by Bernd Thissen/picture alliance via Getty Images

The Bundesliga and 2. Bundesliga have now been postponed for a the rest of the month, and it looks like coronavirus will continue to keep football at bay for the foreseeable future. It is still possible that the leagues can be resumed later on in the year, but until we get a better picture of what to expect of the virus’ outbreak in Germany, we can’t be sure. Even if we are able to continue football later in the year, it is possible that it will involve a reduced schedule. So we are potentially faced by the need to find a resolution to a season that involves playing fewer games than originally scheduled.

So how might the DFL & DFB attempt to end the season? And assuming that they reach a deeply unsatisfactory conclusion, how SHOULD they conclude the season? Lets take a look at a few of the options.

The Conventional Solutions

Void the Entire Season

Voiding the entire season ultimately means that no one is wronged by an unfair resolution based on ¾ of a full schedule, but it also means that all those games were for nothing. How are Arminia Bielefeld supposed to feel, having fought their way to the top of the 2. Bundesliga? And what about Borussia Monchengladbach? They sit in 4th place, 2 points clear of Bayer Leverkusen, and with the opportunity to claim a place in next season’s Champions League in the final ¼ of the season. Who would take the Champions League and Europa League spots? If you void the whole season, then it would probably have to be the previous season’s top 6. This seems unfair on Gladbach and Schalke, who would lose out on European spots that they will feel they deserve. This would be a rather dissatisfying end to the season.

The Existing League Table

The simplest solution of all is to simply run with the league table as it currently stands. This would hand Bayern the title, and Dortmund, RB Leipzig, and Borussia Monchengladbach would join them in the Champions League. Bayer Leverkusen and Schalke would take up the Europa League spots, and Paderborn and Werder Bremen would be relegated, to be replaced by Arminia Bielefeld and Stuttgart.

However, this is a far from satisfactory solution. The first obvious issue is what should be done with Fortuna Dusseldorf and Hamburg. Typically, these teams would face each other in a playoff for a place in the next season’s Bundesliga, but it is unclear how else to resolve this issue without playing more games.

On top of this, there is the issue of each team having faced an unequal schedule. In a regular season, each team plays each other twice, once each at their respective home venues. Stopping the season with everyone on 25 games means that some teams have played each other twice, and others only once, and the number of home and away games are unequal. This gives certain teams an advantage based on the number of home games they have played, and the difficulty of the opposition they have played.

If teams have not faced equal schedules, how can you expect them to lose out on vital Champions League revenues, a league title, and even face relegation from the Bundesliga, and simply accept their fate?

Playoffs to Decide the Top & Bottom of the League

If the DFL & DFB wants to declare definitive winners and losers from this season, but doesn’t have the capacity to play all of the remaining games, one option would be to have playoffs to decide the important league positions. The top 6 in the Bundesliga could compete in a mini tournament to decide their fates. Bayern and Dortmund would receive a bye in the first round, and Leipzig would face Schalke, while Gladbach face Leverkusen. The winner of Leipzig vs Schalke could play Dortmund, and the winner of Gladbach vs Leverkusen would be up against Bayern. This would also require the losers from each round to face each other, to decide the 5th & 6th spots and then the 3rd and 4th spots.

The same could happen at the bottom of the table, but with each team playing against one opponent for the right to play in the Bundesliga next season, similar to the Promotion/Relegation playoff that happens every season. Fortuna Dusseldorf would be up against Hamburg, while Werder Bremen would play Stuttgart, and Paderborn would face Arminia Bielefeld.

These playoffs would be a tremendous spectacle, but they still face the issue that certain teams may have qualified as a result of facing an easier schedule, rather than entirely on merit.

The Rumored Solution

No Winners, No Relegations, and an Expanded Bundesliga

Late last week, before the Bundesliga had been completely postponed, the Yellow Wall Podcast’s Stefan Buczko broke the rumor that the DFL & DFB are considering ending the Bundesliga season without a winner. The rumored proposal would give next seasons’ European spots to the current top 6, and would forego relegations for the season, while promoting the top 4 in the 2. BuLi, meaning that the 20/21 season would be played with a total of 22 teams (instead of the current 18). The following season, a total of 4 teams would be relegated, and the 5th bottom team would face the 2. BuLi’s 3rd best team in the relegation playoff.

This is a slightly unconventional solution, but it does fix some of the most pressing issues. Relegating a team based on ¾ of the season seems incredibly unjust, and given the immediate financial damage that relegation causes, it is easy to see why teams might be pretty resistant. This resolves that problem, and without a national champion. Bayern Munich would be the biggest loser in this case, but oh well, I guess I don’t really care.

The biggest problem I see with this idea is that it would involve a 42-game season, which is a big jump from the current 34-game season, and that’s on top of the potential busy international schedule as the international governing bodies try to fit a European Championships in (presumably in the summer of 2021), and then a World Cup (currently planned for winter 2022). That’s… a ridiculous amount of football, especially after a long break. It would presumably require playing through the winter break. It is a massive ask of players that are already playing a lot of games. This isn’t necessarily a solution that is impossible to resolve, but it’s a significant enough hurdle that they would need to find an answer for this problem.

An Alternative Solution

Schedule-Weighted Points

An alternative approach would be to take the games that have currently been played, and try to account for the inequality of schedule using the average percentage home advantage (which was calculated as ~58.25%, in line with previous research (Leite 2017)), and FiveThirtyEight’s Soccer Power Index (SPI) (an index measuring overall team quality from 0 to 100, which I divided by 100 to make an index from 0 to 1, so that I’m dealing in numbers that look more realistic when I produce the final points). This would produce a weighted points total that is based on the strength of schedule that each team has faced.

I calculated the strength of schedule (SOS) for each team by first calculating SPI/100 minus the mean SPI/100 for each opponent (producing an over/under where a + means a team is better than the league average), and dividing this by the home/away advantage. Following this, I summed the results for each opponent, producing the total strength of schedule.

Following this, I multiplied each team’s total points by their total sum of schedule, producing the “schedule points” (an amount of points won that can be attributed to the schedule differences), and subtracted that from the actual points to produce the schedule adjusted points. Finally, to calculate an end of season total (and factor in the number of games teams have played), I calculated adjusted points per game (adjusted points/games) and then multiplied this by 34 (the full schedule of games for each team).

This produces the following schedule-weighted league table:

Schedule-Weighted Season Points Table

Rank Team Games Points Strength of Schedule Adjusted Points Schedule-Weighted Season Points
Rank Team Games Points Strength of Schedule Adjusted Points Schedule-Weighted Season Points
1 Bayern Munich 25 55 -0.056 51.9 70.6
2 RB Leipzig 25 50 0.016 50.8 69.1
3 Dortmund 25 51 -0.011 50.4 68.6
4 Borussia Monchengladbach 25 49 -0.015 48.3 65.6
5 Bayer Leverkusen 25 47 -0.022 46.0 62.5
6 Schalke 04 25 37 0.007 37.3 50.7
7 Hoffenheim 25 35 0.018 35.6 48.4
8 Freiburg 25 36 -0.021 35.2 47.9
9 Wolfsburg 25 36 -0.035 34.7 47.2
10 Köln 25 32 0.020 32.6 44.4
11 Union Berlin 25 30 0.032 31.0 42.1
12 Eintracht Frankfurt 24 28 0.006 28.2 39.9
13 Augsburg 25 27 0.050 28.4 38.6
14 Hertha BSC 25 28 -0.024 27.3 37.2
15 Mainz 05 25 26 -0.018 25.5 34.7
16 Fortuna Düsseldorf 25 22 0.003 22.1 30.0
17 Werder Bremen 24 18 0.036 18.6 26.4
18 Paderborn 07 25 16 0.015 16.2 22.1

There are three main changes from the actual Bundesliga table. Unfortunately Dortmund drop down to 3rd, while Wolfsburg would end up below Hoffenheim and Freiburg, and Hertha Berlin would drop down one spot to 14th. The end results would be the same for all the important positions in the league, but the means by which we reach this conclusion would be more equitable. SPI is a slightly inexact measure in this case, but it works as a good proxy this case. In the event that the league actually chose to do this (or I put more time in to this), it would be necessary to produce a strength of schedule based on a unique index score.

Conclusion

Finding a way to finish the season is going to be an issue that every league faces, assuming we are unable to squeeze the remaining games in at some point in the future. I’m sure there would still be some that would complain about this resolution, and you would still have the issue of having to decide what to do with the Relegation playoff, but this approach appears to minimize the issues that the DFL & DFB would face when trying to find an equitable, acceptable means of ending the Bundesliga season. A schedule-weighted points table seems like a potential alternative that would be a little harder to find issues with.