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Blame Big Data, Not Bias, For The Premier League Fixture Schedule

Steve McCaskill is editor of TechWeekEurope and ChannelBiz. He joined as a reporter in 2011 and covers all areas of IT, with a particular interest in telecommunications, mobile and networking, along with sports technology.

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Fans might complain but the Premier League and EFL fixtures are actually decided by algorithms, not conspiracies

In the years when there isn’t a major international tournament, the release of the following season’s fixtures can be one of the few highlights of the footballing summer as fans plan their year around which matches they’re going to attend.

But compiling these fixtures is a complex task that must balance fairness with other practical considerations like stadium availability, demands from clubs or authorities, travel implications and local events that might occupy local authorities.

For example, a local flower festival might mean police are needed elsewhere or the stadium is needed for another competition on a particular day.

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Taking all of these factors into account would be difficult to do manually so the Premier League and Football League (EFL) use data analytics to ensure there are no clashes and that all matches are completed.

Atos has been responsible for compiling Premier League fixtures since its inception in 1992 and is now responsible for scheduling the 2,036 Premier League and EFL matches that comprise the 2017-18 season.

Glenn Thompson, a technical architect at Atos, is responsible for compiling the list and taking all these factors into account using an algorithm. He is regularly listed as one of the most powerful people in football and has so far scheduled more than 60,000 matches.

His model must take into account league demands that for every five matches a team must have two home games and three away games, or vice versa and that no club should have two consecutive fixtures home and away – although this is not always possible.

 For example, Manchester United play at home on the 26 December and again on 30 December.

Although no two clubs in the Premier League share a ground, Tottenham will play their games at Wembley this season as their new stadium is under construction. Their match on the 26 August has had to be rescheduled because the national stadium is needed for the Rugby League Challenge Cup Final.

Similarly, West Ham will be unable to play at the Olympic Stadium until it has been converted from athletics use to football after the 2017 World Athletics Championships.

The fixture list often produces some quirks – Chelsea will play at home on Boxing Day for the fifth consecutive season – and Manchester United have a comparatively easy start and end to the campaign but football fans can be safe in the knowledge that technology, and analytics in particular, has produced the fairest schedule possible.

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