What would the Premier League look like if it were a knockout competition?
At this early stage of the year, English football is all about knockout competitions: the busy festive period of league football is over, and instead we have midweek Capital One Cup semifinals, followed by the FA Cup third round.
In fact, this year as a whole is also heavily based around knockout football, with the supposed offseason featuring three major competitions: Euro 2016, the Olympics and a bonus Copa America, too.
Knockout football is interesting, in part, because it's more likely to produce slightly unusual winners. Few would argue, for example, that Wigan were England's best team in 2013 because they won the FA Cup. The element of randomness is precisely what people enjoy, and come to expect; the concept of a giant-killing in the cup competitions is arguably what the tournament is all about.
At international level, things are different. The major honours are decided in knockout tournaments -- usually after a small group stage -- but we tend to make extraordinarily sweeping conclusions based upon a small sample size of matches. Realistically, six matches isn't enough to judge the best national team in Europe, and while we know this, it's often amusing to see the rest of the continent attempting to replicate the approach of the current dominant side: first France at the turn of the century, then Spain and now Germany.
But it's just six (or, for this summer, seven) games. What if the Premier League were contested in such a manner, with no league competition to decide who was truly the best team? What dubious conclusions would we draw from such a small sample size?
To demonstrate the random effect of tournament football, we've mocked up a knockout tournament featuring this season's current top 16 Premier League sides, replicating the classic structure of a major international tournament: four groups of four, followed by a knockout stage.
But, rather than estimate the results of these meetings, we've used the actual results from the first half of this season's Premier League.
There are two small problems, of course: Premier League matches are contested home and away rather than at a neutral venue, and draws don't result in an extra-time period. Therefore, to make it fairer for the away sides, any knockout matches that end in a draw will see the away side progressing.
So, here we go ...
Group stage draw
Groups are always seeded at international tournaments, so we seeded the teams according to their current league position: 1-4, 5-8, 9-12, 13-16. A random draw produced:
Group A: Arsenal, Liverpool, Everton, Bournemouth
Group B: Tottenham, West Ham, West Brom, Southampton
Group C: Manchester City, Crystal Palace, Stoke, Chelsea
Group D: Leicester, Manchester United, Watford, Norwich
No one could entirely decide which group was the most difficult; Group A is strong, but can you really have such a title with tournament debutants Bournemouth? Probably not. Chelsea were the Pot 4 side to avoid, you'd suspect, but relative underdogs Crystal Palace and Stoke meant Group C wasn't too daunting.
Group stage results
Arsenal: 7 points | Liverpool: 5 | Everton: 2 | Bournemouth: 1
Arsenal 2-1 Everton
Liverpool 1-0 Bournemouth
Arsenal 0-0 Liverpool
Bournemouth 3-3 Everton
Arsenal 2-0 Bournemouth
Everton 1-1 Liverpool
Arsenal had the benefit of three home fixtures and topped the group, followed by Liverpool, who managed only one victory, a slightly fortunate 1-0 win over Bournemouth in the second weekend of the season. The Reds' point against city rivals Everton secured their passage into the knockout stage, but coach Brendan Rodgers was unexpectedly dismissed quickly afterward, with Jurgen Klopp arriving in time for the knockout stage.
Spurs: 7 points | West Ham: 4 | West Brom: 3 | Saints: 1
Southampton 0-2 Tottenham
West Ham 1-1 West Brom
West Brom 1-1 Tottenham
West Ham 2-1 Southampton
West Brom 0-0 Southampton
Tottenham 4-1 West Ham
Tottenham impressed on their way to first place, while West Ham were unconvincing in their battle to claim second -- a late Andy Carroll header against Southampton providing their only victory. Tony Pulis' West Brom were undefeated with three draws but were nevertheless eliminated, evoking memories of New Zealand's 2010 World Cup campaign.
Man City: 6 points | Stoke: 6 | Crystal Palace: 6 | Chelsea: 0
Crystal Palace 0-1 Manchester City
Stoke 1-0 Chelsea
Chelsea 1-2 Crystal Palace
Stoke 2-0 Manchester City
Manchester City 3-0 Chelsea
Crystal Palace 2-1 Stoke
An extraordinary group, which featured last season's victorious Chelsea side failing to collect a single point. That meant the other three teams finished level on six points, with Crystal Palace incredibly unfortunate not to progress, courtesy of an inferior goal difference. Kelechi Iheanacho's late winner for City against Palace proved crucial; a late wild-card pick from Manuel Pellegrini, he came from nowhere to make himself a hero. Doesn't that thing happen so often in major tournaments? Stoke lost to Palace, but defeated the two big boys to progress.
Leicester: 7 points | Man United: 4 | Watford: 3 | Norwich: 2
Watford 1-2 Manchester United
Norwich 1-2 Leicester
Leicester 1-1 Manchester United
Watford 2-0 Norwich
Manchester United 1-2 Norwich
Leicester 2-1 Watford
Leicester topped the group -- these knockout competitions produce crazy results -- with Manchester United following them out of the group thanks to Bastian Schweinsteiger's late goal against Watford. The German World Cup winner provides great experience of knockout tournaments, justifying his signing.
All as expected so far, then -- the seeds all progressing, aside from Stoke edging out Crystal Palace. But the knockout stage is where things really get interesting. One match decides so much; in 90 minutes, it's sink or swim.
Arsenal 0-2 West Ham
A shock result to start the knockout stage, as a couple of mistakes from Petr Cech handed West Ham an unlikely victory. Arsene Wenger's decision to make Cech his sole signing ahead of the competition proved a huge error -- the keeper clearly isn't up to scratch at this stage of his career. Wenger's failure to take Arsenal to the top four means his job must surely be under threat.
Tottenham 0-0 Liverpool
Jurgen Klopp started his Liverpool reign with a battling goalless draw against Tottenham, notable for the increased work rate of his outfield players, pressing high up the pitch. Liverpool progressed on penalties, but is that level of closing down really possible with so many matches in such a short period of time?
Manchester United 0-0 Manchester City
Another dreary goalless draw between two great rivals -- why do the goals always dry up at the knockout stage? Louis van Gaal's baffling decision to substitute his goalkeeper moments before the end of extra time backfired spectacularly, as City went on to win the shootout.
Stoke 2-2 Leicester
Yet another victory on penalties, after a thrilling game where Leicester came back from 2-0 down to take the game into extra-time. The main story, though, was Jamie Vardy -- the former non-league player hit his fourth goal in as many matches. While this would probably earn him a big-money move in a previous era, everyone knows signing players on the back of decent performances at international tournaments is foolish. Vardy surely wouldn't score every week in the Premier League, would he?
Manchester City 1-2 West Ham
Another shock win for West Ham, who again deployed a perfect counterattacking approach. They went ahead early through Victor Moses, and then extended their lead through Diafra Sakho. Kevin De Bruyne got a goal back, but West Ham held on to reach the final.
Liverpool 1-0 Leicester
All eyes were on four-in-four Vardy, but Christian Benteke scored the only goal after an hour to take Liverpool through to the final. Benteke, who also hit a crucial winner in the group stage, has proved tremendous value for money at £32.5 million.
Liverpool 0-3 West Ham
One of the most extraordinarily comprehensive final performances of recent times. West Ham sat deep and countered, usually through Dimitri Payet, who later was voted the tournament's best player and is surely now a serious contender for the Ballon d'Or. Manuel Lanzini, Mark Noble and Sakho grabbed the goals.
Liverpool's desperate half-time switch to a three-man defence was undermined by Philippe Coutinho's foolishness. Having collected a booking in the first half, he dived into a challenge and was promptly dismissed, ending Liverpool's chances of a comeback. Will the Brazilian ever dare set foot on Merseyside again?
So there you have it. In this imaginary tournament -- with real results -- West Ham are crowned champions despite the fact they're currently sixth in the Premier League.
It's interesting to wonder which of these stories we would have trusted if this were a real tournament. We'd probably be commenting on Slaven Bilic's previous experience of this type of knockout football, and questioning whether Klopp's pressing game is workable with so many games in such a short period of time. Vardy's goal-scoring run or Chelsea's inability to collect a single victory would be dismissed as freak results that simply wouldn't happen in the Premier League,
This, of course, is the beauty of it all. The league table never lies, as they say; but in knockout football, we never know what to believe.
Michael Cox is the editor of zonalmarking.net and a contributor to ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Zonal_Marking.