New World Order? Welcome to Premier League's New Era of Excellence
Bring me my bow of burning gold. Bring me my all-English Euro finals. Bring me my £5bn three-year domestic TV rights cycle. Bring me my Amazon stick of fire.
The Premier League has always been an imperial, expansionist force. From the start the aim has been to fill the skies, to build a luminous new global super league in England’s own green and pleasantly deregulated land.
At times this has felt like little more than a sales pitch, the Premier League beaming its best Don King smile and declaring itself the biggest, most splendiferous of all the football leagues, even as great teams and great players have raised their own eras of European club football dominance elsewhere.
Until now, that is. Welcome to the new world. As the new season kicked into gear last month it is worth remembering where we left off. Four English teams had already made it to the Champions League quarter-finals before Liverpool and Tottenham met in Madrid on the first day of June. Arsenal and Chelsea blocked out the Europa League final in Baku. By the time spring arrived Manchester City and Liverpool were providing the only proper title race in any of Europe’s major leagues.
Meanwhile the cash registers continue to ping, that miraculous tide of high finance sluices through English football’s double-drum machine. According to Forbes magazine nine of the top 20 most lucrative clubs in the world are in England, including six of the top 10. The league has even begun to produce – of all things – home-grown talent, its elite academies the envy of the same European teams English football looked upon with a hand-wringing sense of inadequacy a few years back.
Look on our works, you mighty and … well, what exactly? If this feels like the culmination of something, a moment to draw a breath and look down, briefly, at the view, it is also a point of uncertainty on several fronts
Last season’s title race was, of course, something of a chimera. The top two went toe to toe, but the gap to third-placed Chelsea was a startling 25 points. Seventh-placed Wolves ended up 41 points behind the champions. A genuine title race should be evidence of shared strength, of a system able to produce equivalent champion contenders from its own resources. Last year was thrilling. But it was also a bit of a fluke, a rare coincidence of two best-of-generation teams in the same season.
It might seem odd to be alarmed by excellence. City’s champion brilliance, and Liverpool’s ability to match them stride for stride, have been marvels of the club football age. Both teams produce passages of football to match or exceed the best of recent times.
But it is a challenge every team outside that elite pocket must strive to meet. The good health of the league relies on genuine competitiveness. Key to this is the idea that it can still provide sport in its pure form, that all teams are capable of beating one another rather than simply providing a dutiful canvas for the brilliance of the elite.
The Premier League has increasingly split itself into segments in recent years: A-listers; eager second raters; mid-table fodder; imperilled minority. Within this there has been a surge in the number of matches where possession becomes tediously skewed, where to escape with a respectable defeat is a desirable outcome.
There were notable exceptions last year: Crystal Palace’s willingness to press Manchester City home and away, for example. But the fact these were notable tells its own story. It is a process that will only grow more pronounced with the increased slice of overseas TV rights money for the bigger clubs and moves among club owners to dilute the equal-share principle.
Can anyone close the gap on the top two? Manchester United’s ghost ship of a squad continues to list, unable either to shed its skeleton crew or add sufficient new life. Chelsea have entered a fascinating kind of standby mode, one that might ultimately prove beneficial. Tottenham are probably best placed. Harry Kane is in one of his fit periods in between the injured periods. Tanguy Ndombele may take time to settle but he already looks a fine addition.
Similarly Nicolas Pépé is an ambitious signing for Arsenal, and another indication of the vogue for well-judged moderate-to-big-money buys that has been a feature of City’s own planning over the last few years.
Still, challenging the top two looks a vertiginous task. Rodri will strengthen the seams of that wonderful City midfield. And both the champions and Liverpool will improve just by dint of another summer in the hands of Pep Guardiola and Jürgen Klopp.
Best of all would be another break-out team. Currently Leicester and Wolves look the best placed to press the teams who finished above them last season. Below will be the usual pack of middleweights roped together like survivors on the raft of the Medusa, concerned with little more than staying afloat, continuing to benefit from the extraordinary rewards of Premier League stasis.
It is a concentration of wealth that affects everything else around it, from devalued domestic cups, to the basic good health of the ever-narrowing pyramid below. On the up-side there will once again be plenty of fine entertaining football played in that middling pack. It is a sign of the Premier League’s riches that there can be a fear of stagnation even while teams like Bournemouth and Watford have such fine attacking talent in their ranks and a club with Burnley’s managerial expertise continues to perform to such a high level.
The promoted teams will once again face a significant step up. There has already been a degree of fatalism about the prospects of Sheffield United and Norwich, but Aston Villa look a decent bet to expand the growing Midlands revival. The strange scenes at Newcastle over the summer suggest a good start might be essential to avoid a painful season.
Beyond this the most notable change will come via another televisual intrusion. For the first time the Video Assistant Referee will stalk the pitch. The issues with VAR remain the same: bad VAR is really bad; good VAR is a welcome addition. The obvious fear is that the same problems apparent at the Women’s World Cup will overshadow such tedious matters as the actual football.
This is a sport of rough edges, played out constantly at the edge of the rules, some of which now seem mutable and vague when subjected to this level of unblinking scrutiny. The balance here is delicate. As ever VAR’s failure or otherwise will be dependent on the humans who design and operate the system.
The other major change is the introduction of a winter break in February. This has been a cause celebre for so long its arrival has perhaps gone a little under-trumpeted. In truth the winter break was never really the answer to much, and certainly not to the repeated failures of the England team, product of generations of inadequate coaching, tactics and management. If players are allowed to rest, if it stops one set of ligaments from pinging, a hamstring or two from entering the red zone, then it will be a sensible addition.
The Guardian Sport