The English Football Leagues and How They Work

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The English ‘Pyramid’

The English football league system is a connected pyramid structure. At the top of the pyramid is the English Premier League. Here’s the most elite level of football in the country is played. Below the Premier League is the English Football League which consists of the Championship, League One and League Two. These three leagues make up the remaining levels of professional football in England.

To imagine the English football pyramid system, it’s useful to think about levels. The Premier League is level one – the very top level. The Championship is the second level, League One the third level and League Two, the fourth level.

This is a hierarchical structure with promotion and relegation existing between the leagues. Teams can be promoted in consecutive seasons where they would eventually reach the Premier League (top level).

The Premier League

The winner of the Premier League is crowned as the best team in the country. 20 teams compete in the Premier League each season. Each team play each other twice, once at their home stadium and once at an away stadium, totalling 38 fixtures.

The team with the most points at the end of the season usually are crowned the champions. For example, in this season’s competition, Liverpool won the league with 99 points. 18 more than closest challengers Manchester City, who finished second.

Although Liverpool were outright winners this season, in the past Premier League titles have been decided with one game left to play, or even seconds left to play.

In the 2011/12 season, one of the most iconic moments in English football took place when Manchester City and Manchester United battled for the Premier League title. With one game left, City needed to win their final game. If they lost and United drew or won, they would lose the title.

With two minutes left, United beat Sunderland and City were drawing 2-2 with Queens Park Rangers. Meaning Manchester United would lift the title. But the events that took place in those final moments of the season were some of the most tense and iconic in Premier League history.


But there are many more aspects of the Premier League to contend other than the league title. By the end of the season, fourth place and above qualify for the Champions League, an elite European competition where the best performing teams from across the continent’s top-leagues compete with each other. The fifth placed teams in the Premier League automatically qualify for the Europa League, which is a second-tier European competition after the Champions League.

If teams finish in the bottom three of the Premier League (18th, 19th or 20th) they are relegated to England’s second level, the Championship. This season, the three teams to drop down from the Premier League to the Championship were Bournemouth, Watford and Norwich City.

When viewing a league table, a line usually separates the relegation places from the rest of the league places to guide viewers on who is in danger of being relegated. The same line shows the Champions League and Europa higher up the league too.

The Championship

Those three relegated teams swap place with three teams who gain promotion from the Championship, part of the English Football League (EFL) and English football’s second level. In the EFL structure (Championship, League One and League Two) there are 24 teams in each league who play 46 games each per season.

The teams who finish first and second in the Championship with the most points across the season are automatically promoted to the Premier League for the following season. The top team are promoted as champions of that division, while second are automatically promoted.


But the third and final place for promotion from the Championship is contested via a knockout competition, the play-offs.

Teams who finish between 3rd and 6th in the Championship enter the play-offs. Third place plays sixth while fourth plays fifth over two legs in the semi-finals, one as a home fixture and the return leg as an away fixture. If the match is still drawn after the two matches, 30 minutes of extra time is played to determine an out and out winner. But, if the score is still drawn after this time, a penalty shoot-out is used to decide the winner.

For example, in the 2018/19 play-offs, Aston Villa played West Bromwich Albion. The match was tied 2-2 after both legs and after the 30 minutes extra time which led to a penalty shoot-out, which Aston Villa won 4-3 to progress to the final.

The two winners of each play-off semi-final meet in the final to play one straight knockout game at Wembley, England’s national stadium. The winner of this head to head takes the final place for promotion to the Premier League.

In the Championship this season, Leeds United were promoted as champions, West Bromwich Albion finished second. Brentford beat Swansea over two legs in their play-off semi-final while Fulham beat Cardiff City. Brentford and Fulham now face each other in the play-off final to determine the final promotion place.


Leagues One and Two

The exact same structures of automatic promotion, play-offs and relegation exist between the Championship, League One and League Two. For example, three teams from League One (third level) are promoted up to the Championship each season while the three bottom teams in the Championship, who place 22nd, 23rd and 24th, are all relegated to League One.

The only difference lower down the league structure is that four teams instead of three are relegated down from League One to League Two each season, while four teams win promotion from League Two to League One every season.
In League Two (fourth level), the top three placed teams win automatic promotion, while fourth to seventh take place in the same play-off format played in League One and the Championship.

Each season, the bottom two teams, who finish 24th and 23rd, are relegated from League Two to the English non-league system. This is another pyramid system comprised of one national league at level 5 and a range of regional and semi-professional leagues inter linking with each other throughout the country.

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