Welcome to the Virgin Media Midweek Kick-off! With Leicester top of the table, Tottenham Hotspur their closest contenders, and Chelsea and Manchester United no longer guaranteed their habitual place in the top four, we ask football writers Iain Macintosh and Dan Masoliver whether this season marks a turning point in Premier League history…
Yup, the party’s over for the big boys
“The last 15 years are the blip. This, what we have right now, that’s normal”– Iain Macintosh editor of The Set Pieces
History repeating itself
While everyone else revelled in the madness of this season, some argued that this wasn't madness at all. This is just what English football used to be like, before the Premier League got into its stride. Normality isn’t a self-perpetuating cabal of super-rich clubs locked into the top of the table. Normality is an ebbing and flowing league. Normality is Ipswich Town, Watford and Southampton coming second. Normality is provincial league winners like Derby County and Nottingham Forest; it’s Burnley and Blackpool as significant powers. The last 15 years are the blip. This, what we have right now, that’s normal.
Redistribution of wealth
Money, specifically UEFA Champions League money, is the reason the top clubs became entrenched, but money could be what digs them out too. The new Premier League TV deal will turn England’s also-rans into European aristocracy. The elite can only put eleven players on the pitch at a time. In the past, they were eleven players earning significantly more than your average footballer, with more on the bench earning significantly more than your average substitutes. But if the likes of Crystal Palace and Stoke City can pay fortunes too, just think what they could put on the pitch themselves.
Leicester City have shown this season that you don’t necessarily need huge sums of money to compete. Ever wondered why it’s always the French, Dutch and German clubs that find the stars of the future, and the English who pay £20million-plus for them when they mature? So did Leicester, who assembled their entire starting XI for a combined total of £22.29million. With a bit of hard work from the scouting department, they’ve assembled a team of cut-price talent now worth an absolute fortune. If N’Golo Kante had been at Borussia Dortmund rather than Caen, he’d have been swept up by Real Madrid for £35million, and Leicester wouldn’t have had a look in.
Twelve years ago, the Premier League sides watched Greece win Euro 2004 and thought, ‘yes, we can do that’. It was an era of packed midfields, percentage-based football and grabbing something with a set piece. This season has been very different, with only four Premier League teams having conceded at the rate of fewer than a goal a game. The art of defending has been temporarily forgotten. Many smaller teams are happy to attack now. Everton want to play, Stoke want to play, Bournemouth want to play. Fearlessness brings chaos and uncertainty. It’s also brought a whopping 28 defeats for the old elite of Arsenal, Manchester United, Manchester City and Chelsea.
Anything is possible
Many observers, this one included, thought that the expansion of the UEFA European Championships would turn the qualifying campaign into a parade lap for the big nations. But the significantly increased prospect of success inspired the smaller nations. Where once they had capitulated, now they fought like dogs. Spain and Portugal lost their opening games. Germany wobbled, Holland fell. Teams like Albania and Hungary were empowered. The same thing can happen in the Premier League. Belief is a powerful force. If Leicester can do it, anyone can do it. The days of sending a weakened team to Old Trafford are, hopefully, over.
Forget it, this season is just a blip
“The best players will always go to the clubs with pedigree” – Dan Masoliver sports editor, Virgin Media
The rich get richer
From top to bottom, every top-flight club in England is cashing in on the global popularity of the Premier League. But if you think that will help Crystal Palace or West Bromwich Albion compete financially with City or United next season, you haven’t done your sums. Yes, the so-called ‘poor’ clubs will get richer, but the wealthy clubs will too, by the exact same amount. And if a bottom-of-the-table team is competing with a ‘top four’ club for the same player, who do you think has the greater spending power? When money flows into football, it doesn’t so much level the playing field as hyper-inflate the existing one.
Players are a lot more mercenary than they used to be, with professionals changing clubs about as frequently as they do boots, but footballers are also more aware of history and reputation than fans give them credit for. Lionel Messi isn’t going to leave Barcelona to suit up for Watford, and you won’t see a picture of Robert Lewandowski proudly holding up a AFC Bournemouth shirt ahead of the new season, however much cash is on the table. The best players in the world will flock to England next year, but the best of the best will go to the clubs with the most pedigree.
Don’t speak too soon
Leicester’s story, from relegation certs to Premier League favourites within the space of 12 months, is an amazing one. But one good season for one ‘small’ club does not the start of a new era herald. And there is nothing to suggest that any of the teams currently gasping for air in the drop zone will ‘do a Leicester’ next season. Chelsea, United and Liverpool have all suffered this year from managerial inconsistencies and underperforming superstars, but as Pep Guardiola, Jurgen Klopp and (maybe, just maybe) José Mourinho settle in with their revamped squads over the summer, order will soon be restored.
If Riyad Mahrez, Jamie Vardy and N’Golo Kante are all still on Leicester City’s books come August, I will eat my hat, your hat and any other hat unfortunate enough to come across my path. What happened when Gareth Bale inspired Spurs to a first top-four finish in the Premier League era? Off he went to Real Madrid for a record-breaking €100m. And when Luis Suarez terrorised defences up and down the country, Barcelona waved their hefty chequebook. As sure as day turns to night, the surprise stars of this season will be swept up by world football’s big boys over the summer. And when Mahrez goes to Paris Saint-Germain for £40m, will the Foxes find a suitable replacement? Unlikely.
Any one of Stoke, West Ham United and Southampton could feasibly occupy the UEFA Europa League spots at the end of the season, which is an exciting prospect – they should rightly be rewarded for their achievements. The fear, however, is that instead of allowing them to build on this year’s success, the added distraction of a prestigious European competition will only hamper their progress in the league next season. If you don’t have the resources of a Man City or an Arsenal to draw on, a 4,000-mile round trip to Rubin Kazan on a Thursday night is hardy conducive to launching a bid on that coveted fourth place.
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