Feb 5, 2010

The new power structure in English football

Yes I called it football, which I assure you has absolutely nothing to do with my desire to attract search engine traffic from outside the U.S.

Anyway, it is clear that the era of the "big four" in the English Premiership is over almost as quickly as it started. In its wake a three-tiered structure has emerged. Only, it's not quite as clear cut as the previous one. That is largely due to the fact that the new pecking order is still shaking out, which is very much the nature of the beast. Whenever there is a change in power structure, be it political, artistic or in more important areas of life, a period of upheaval is all but inevitable. Such is the situation we find ourselves in at the start of the new decade in the English Premier League.

How has this three-tiered power structure taken hold thus far? Let's take a look:

1. The top tier: Manchester United and Chelsea
This one's pretty easy. Man U and Chelsea have dominated the Premiership the past five years, during which time they have held a stranglehold on the league trophy. During the big four era, which we're defining as 2003 to 2009 (none of the big four finished outside the top five during this stretch), Arsenal and Liverpool figured into the title chase as well. That is no longer the case this season. It actually hasn't been the case in some time where Arsenal is concerned. Since 2005, when Gunners finished second, they have finished fourth three times and third once (in 2008). So Arsenal, though a splendid team, can no longer be viewed in the same class as the "elite two". By contrast, one could make the case that Arsene Wenger's side dominated the Premiership for the period before that: Between 1998 and 2005 Arsenal finished first or second every year, capturing three trophies. They remain the only team to go undefeated over the course of a Premiership season (in 2003-2004). We don't expect anybody to match that feat anytime soon, if ever. Or at least not in our lifetimes. The last team to do it before Arsenal were Preston North End in 1889.

As for Liverpool, they only finished second two times last decade. And we all know what's been going on this season (though at the time of this writing they were somewhat miraculously back in fifth place).

The argument that Arsenal and Liverpool have lost touch because of economics holds no water in my view. Yes, Reds are saddled with debt and Gunners might not flash the cash as often or with as much gravity as Chelsea. But both clubs have spent impressive sums on acquisitions in the past year, as the names Andrey Arshavin and Alberto Aquilani attest. Besides, who did Chelsea sign in the January transfer window? What about Man United, who have been sellers (Cristiano Ronaldo, Carlos Tevez) more than buyers the past year?

The decline of Liverpool and Arsenal is not a result of economics but of mismanagement. With the North London side it appears a case of Wenger being a bit too full of himself and his methods. Sure, Arsenal's style of play is entertaining but it's also finicky. Better defense is needed and a little brawn to go with the finesse would do wonders. With the Merseysiders, it's a clear case of Rafa Benitez' incompetence. Not so much in managing a game (though there too) but more in putting the talent he acquires to proper use.

So Reds and Gunners are no longer in the top tier. But as we'll see they aren't in the second tier either.

2. The middle tier: Aston Villa, Everton, Tottenham Hotspur, Manchester City.
Under its new owner Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Man City can outspend literally anybody, but it hasn't done them much good yet. That is finally starting to change after Mark Hughes was justifiably shown the door in December. Since Roberto Mancini took over from the Welshman, Citizens have won eight of 10 games and moved up to sixth in the standings. They are equal on points with fifth-placed Liverpool but have two games in hand. So Manchester City could make a move for fourth place, the spot currently occupied by Tottenham Hotspur. Spurs have had a solid season after two traumatic campaigns that saw them fall out of the Champions League contention they previously occupied. But Spurs are not an elite team by any means. They have a terrible record against the top three teams in the league and are probably at least two big signings away from being able to contend. Then again, so are a lot of teams. Like Aston Villa, who flirted with third place for a long time last season before falling off the pace. Or Everton, who have not lost a league match this year. Villa and Everton lack the financial resources of City or even Spurs, but they make up for it with two of the best minds in the game. If either David Moyes or Martin O'Neill were English one of them would have gotten the call to manage the Three Lions a long time ago. But England's loss is the Premiership's gain. If Everton had Man United's money, David Moyes would be Alex Ferguson. Come to think of it, he's kind of the obvious heir apparent to Sir Alex at Old Trafford should the old boy step down (dude's 68 years old. It can't be that much longer now).

Together, the Man City-Villa-Spurs-Everton quartet occupy a type of purgatory in the EPL. They aren't good enough to compete with the big boys but aren't bad enough to have to worry about relegation. They may make forays in one direction or the other, and may manage a top three finish one of these years if everything goes exactly right. But mostly, this is who they are. The one possible exception is Man City, who could be seen as favorites to finish third next season now that they have proper leadership.

3. The lower tier: Everybody else (except Liverpool and Arsenal).
Speaking of purgatory, Liverpool and Arsenal aren't in this group either. They're better than that, obviously. They're probably better than the mid-tier clubs as well, though they may not always show it. For now, the fates of these two teams can simply not be determined. It may be another year before they take their spots in the pecking order.

There isn't really much that can be said about the lower tier teams. They are almost without exception wholly uninteresting. Even Fulham, who have been the best of the bunch the past season and a half or so, can be painful to watch sometimes. Each of these clubs may have one or two players who stand out. But once they are fully established, a richer club in England or Europe snatches them up. Though that too is increasingly rare. For the most part these teams trade players with each other. Unable to afford the big talent, they are forced to settle on the bargain bin. Which explains why, no matter how skilled their manager, they are doomed to the Premiership's equivalent of the third estate.

Sure, some will make forays into the top eight from time to time. Others will be relegated. They're essentially interchangeable parts, though every now and then somebody will come around and really stink it up (like Derby County a few years ago or Pompey earlier this season). But for the most part there is very little that separates these teams. On any given day any one of them could beat another one.

In fact, who's to say this pertains just to the bottom 12 Premiership clubs? Are the likes of Hull City and Pompey and Burnley really that much (or at all) better than Newcastle or West Bromwich Albion or Nottingham Forest? I'd have to watch more of the Coca Cola Championship to say for sure, but I have a feeling the difference is negligible.

So there you have it. The new power structure in English football. Get used to it, because it will probably be here for a while.

Photo taken from Independent.co.uk without permission.

No comments:

Post a Comment