There is a certain irony in Leicester City’s greatest ambition for this season being breaking up the Premier League cabal that they indirectly helped create. Leicester’s remarkable title win in 2015/16 steeled the financial elite to ensure that something so nonsensical could never happen again.
It coincided with the start of a bumper new broadcasting deal, providing the top six with even greater financial power. In 2016/17 alone, the now established Premier League elite spent £720m on new players. The following season, that total increased to £1.1bn, the sort of figure that makes you double-check your maths. Lo and behold: for the last three years, the top six places in the division were filled by the same clubs. This has never happened in English football before.
So it is easy to conclude that the top six is ring-fenced, threatening barbed wire cuts and electric shocks to any club that dares to scale it. That threatens to erode the spirit of those below, and can make life seem a little pointless. There are domestic cup runs (see Watford and Wolves in last season’s FA Cup), one-off victories and the financial benefits of merit payments, but all three represent a stretch for relevance rather than a celebration.
Last season, Arsenal won two away games between November and the final day, wrestled with the unfamiliarity of a post-Arsene Wenger existence and became embroiled in civil war thanks to an absent owner. Manchester United fell as low as eighth in early December, replaced their manager with a novice and won two of their last nine league matches. Both clubs finished 13 and nine points ahead of seventh place respectively. If nobody from outside the Big Six could get close last season, given the turmoil, then when?
Well how about 2019/20? Because if the Premier League’s rich are getting richer, the rest aren’t getting poorer. If this summer transfer window has so far been defined by one thing (and there are still three weeks left) it is the clubs outside the top six remaining steadfast in the face of serious interest from above.
Arsenal tried to lowball Crystal Palace over Wilfried Zaha, and were told where to go. Manchester United made signing Sean Longstaff a priority, and Newcastle United made it clear that only £50m would do. United have been pursuing Harry Maguire all summer, but Leicester publicised their demand for a world-record fee for a defender if a deal is going to be done. They have no need to sell for anything less. Vultures can only feed on carrion. In this climate, having money means having life.
Rather than being picked off, the clubs immediately below the top six are growing stronger. The four teams considered the most likely to break up the cabal – Wolves, Leicester, Everton and West Ham – have all invested significantly. Wolves have made deals for Raul Jimenez and Leander Dendoncker permanent, Leicester have signed Ayoze Perez and landed a coup in Youri Tielemans, Everton completed moves for Andre Gomes and Fabian Delph and West Ham demonstrated their ambition with the arrivals of Sebastien Haller and Pablo Fornals.
All of those four clubs have reasons to be buoyant. Wolves have maximised their relationship with Jorge Mendes to quickly establish themselves as a Premier League club, and show little sign of allowing expectations to cede. Everton have finally realised the benefits of quality over quantity, investing smartly in key positions and likely to buy a first-choice centre forward to complete the set. In Fornals, Manuel Lanzini, Felipe Anderson, Andriy Yarmolenko and Haller, West Ham have a potentially wonderful front five. Leicester have a core of eight players (Tielemans, James Maddison, Ricardo Pereira, Ben Chilwell, Wilfried Ndidi, Demarai Gray, Harvey Barnes and Hamza Choudhury) aged between 20 and 25. At 25, Pereira is the oldest of the group by almost two years.
Crucially, all four clubs were able to attract and retain high-class managers. If Manuel Pellegrini is the obvious outlier at 65, he has coached at the highest level with Real Madrid and Manchester City. The other three – Brendan Rodgers, Nuno Espirito Santo and Marco Silva – are all aged between 42 and 46, and manage at clubs where reputations can flourish. If all goes well, the next stop is a super club.
This rise of the rest can best be grasped in four central midfielders, one at each club. Gomes changed the tempo of Everton’s play at his best last season, and was signed by Barcelona for €35m. Ruben Neves was touted as one of the potential stars of his generation when made the youngest captain in Champions League history. In different roles, Tielemans and Declan Rice have probably taken on that mantle. All are potentially supreme at what they do. All are aged between 20 and 25. All play outside the top six, but would not look out of place in it.
Clearly any bridging of the gap partly depends on those above the rest dropping down to meet them halfway, but here again there is reason for optimism. Arsenal are still embroiled in internal conflict, fan groups protesting about a perceived lack of care and investment that has caused the club to rot from the top down. Manchester United have so far spent £65m on two young players in an attempt to rid the club of dry rot, but without structural change it’s hard to know what to expect this season. The same is certainly true of Chelsea, shorn of their best player and hamstrung by a transfer ban that may force a change of ethos. It goes without saying that there are valid reservations about all three of their managers.
That uncertainty pierces a hole in the vacuum, however small, allowing air to rush in and breathe life into a top-six battle. With opportunity comes significant pressure, but all four of the likeliest clubs to take advantage should embrace that pressure and so should their managers. It is evidence of their preparation and intention.
There is a natural flip side to this optimism, of course. We may be sat here in ten months after the Big Six have extended their already record-breaking fiefdom, and all are currently heavy odds-on shorts to make it so. If that is the case, the same question will bear repeating at a louder volume: If not now, then when?