Sports writing is primarily about making mistakes, about being proved wrong. Therefore we might as well start this blog with a bold(ish) prediction, that will, come the end of the season look entirely stupid. When Burnley’s Ben Mee holds the Premier League title aloft, and a some how still upbeat Ole Gunnar Solskjaer prepares for a season in the Sky Bet Championship, I’m sure that this post will be e-mailed, whatsapped and Facebook messengered to me, to remind me of what an idiot I once was.
That said, I’m going to make the prediction anyway. Come May, there is no chance, absolutely no chance, zilch, nul points, that any of Leicester City, West Ham, Crystal Palace, Burnley or whatever other tinpot no hoper club you can think will finish in the top 6. Instead, like virtually every other season before it, the same mega-rich, oil money, Texan billionaire run, super clubs will populate the upper echelons of the Premier League. I’m of course talking about Chelsea, Arsenal, Liverpool, Tottenham and the two Manchester clubs.
Before I get started with the hows and the whys, I want to tackle the narrative that gets built up season after season by both the traditional forms of media and social media. Prior to the start of the season everyone has a very rigid forecast of what is going to happen over the next ten or so months. Pundits from all stations predict the same six clubs to finish at the top of the table, the clubs that finished mid-table last season to finish in the middle again, whilst those who just got promoted will go straight back down.
This pre-season prediction is how certainly for the start of the season at least, we measure each sides successes and failures. Therefore, when a big club falls short of these expectation, even if it’s only October, even if they’ve only lost 2 or 3 games, they are then perceived to be in CRISIS. And when a club hits crisis mode, they should sack the manager, sell all the players, knock down the stadium and execute the chairman. Just burn down the whole club and start all over again as nothing good can come from a club in crisis. They are done. Finished.
Whereas for the small town club that has nicked their place in the top six, well the good times are going to roll on forever. First, they’ll finish fourth, but that’s just the start, then it’s on to the Champions League, Mark Noble’s going to nutmeg Messi at the Nou Camp. Then onto the World Cup, World Series, Super Bowl, let’s all get carried away because little old Burnley are fifth. The good times are never going to end, we’re into a new era of football, the big six clique is dead.
Let’s look at the facts. Tottenham have had by their own standards a poor start to the season. They got knocked out of the Carabao Cup by Colchester, they got thumped 7-2 by Bayern Munich and last weekend Spurs got humiliated 3-0 at the hands of Brighton. Crisis. But despite all this Tottenham sit in ninth, not last, and are currently only 3 points off Crystal Palace who lie in sixth.
Do we really expect a Tottenham side made up of a world-class striker in Harry Kane, as well as Son Heung-Min, Christian Eriksen and the exceptionally solid pairing of Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld, not to be able to make up the three point gap they have between them and Roy Hodgson’s Crystal Palace? Of course not. Tottenham are out of form, but they also have a great squad, a fantastic manager and they reached the Champions League final literally just a few months ago. They’re a quality team, it’s just a blip.
Let’s also consider Chelsea and Arsenal’s season to date. The prevailing opinion at the start of the season was that both these clubs would be in and around the top four positions, but could also slip into the Europa League spots. Then the season started. Chelsea lost 4-0 to Man Utd and Arsenal lost 3-0 to Liverpool. The crisis word wasn’t being banded around just yet, but preparations were being made. Chris Sutton was preparing his ‘you’re better than that’ rant, whilst Danny Murphy was perfecting his best frowny face for when he next had to talk about Arsenal’s defence. Even as recently last week, one Guardian journalist described the Man Utd vs Arsenal fixture as being like a mid-table fixture.
Yet, in reality, Arsenal have bounced back quickly and sit comfortably in third, only behind Liverpool and Manchester City. Frank Lampard has bedded in his youngsters and got his Chelsea team up to sixth. Both these teams are now going about their business fairly pleasantly, and it’s exceptionally unlikely that either of these teams will drop below sixth throughout the rest of the season. Odd considering that only a few weeks ago every talksport phone-in and twitter banter account was painting the picture that both these teams were set for a season of woe and misery.
The only superclub that risks making me look like a fool is Manchester United. They are increasingly looking bereft of ideas, and seem to lack quality in various areas of the pitch particularly going forward. But even despite this, I still remain confident that the Red Devils will finish in the top 6. As clubs like United always do.
Ever since Leicester City won the Premier League title in 2016, the super clubs have built a wall around the top six positions. They’ve consistently spent more and paid higher wages than the rest of the sides in England’s top flight. For the past three seasons, the same six clubs have finished in the top six positions. Prior to that one or two clubs might drift out of these positions, but usually only when hampered by a deep run in both the cups or the Europa League. As bad as Manchester United are right now, they’re still a team that on paper is far superior to Leicester, West Ham or whoever else is above them, due to years and years of higher spending. Therefore, history dictates that Manchester United should make up the ground on their smaller rivals.
The truth is, we like to buy into these narratives of huge clubs in decline or little underdogs sticking it up to the big boys because we want them to be true. We want to believe that anyone can beat anyone, that tactics and desire can beat pounds and dollars. We want to believe that the football we are watching (and the society we live in for that matter) is a meritocracy, that it’s fair. But, unfortunately, time and time again, this has been proven to be false. The league table might look a little bit topsy turvy now, but come May, it will be the same old faces sitting at the top of the tree.