When you are in the Big Six, there now seems no way of dropping out as money begets money…
Looking at the Premier League table in its current, Covid-besmirched state is a lot like reading a French newspaper when you don’t really speak French. There are bits of it you recognise. Some of it seared into your subconscious as a schoolkid or on camping trips; some discernible by dint of the fact that French is essentially just sexy English. But there is also much that you can’t make out as the subtleties – the tenses and auxiliaries and conjugations that really shape meaning – remain out of reach. You know that there is a library. You just don’t know what is happening/has happened/will happen to it.
Yet, the longer you look at it, the more you get the gist, and a broad understanding begins to form. Because those subtleties – the caveats and conditionals, the ifs and buts of games-in-hand – are highly unlikely to shape much of anything whatsoever, with practically nobody able to string a run together.
Outside of Liverpool (four) and Manchester City (two), only one side is on a winning run of any kind, and that is Newcastle (three games). When it comes to those scrabbling after a top-four finish, only Manchester United are unbeaten in more than two. And if a bird in hand is worth two in the bush, it is a fairly safe bet that where we currently are is somewhere near where we will end. Especially when all available evidence appears to suggest that those two birds are actually not in the bush at all, but are off getting outplayed by Southampton.
Obviously, things might turn out differently. At the very least, with West Ham, Arsenal, Wolves and Spurs separated by just five points in the chasing pack, the race for the top four is competitive. Far more so than the title race threatens to be.
But the conditions needed for this to happen are sobering to consider. It takes serious over-achievement from those outside the Big Six™ for them to compete with the colossi of the English game, and it takes the complete opposite from those higher in the food chain. United are, quite clearly, a basket-case of a football club. Spurs have had three permanent managers within the past ten months. Arsenal are Arsenal. If any of them were to get the correct people in the correct positions doing the correct things, they would soar above the morass in no time.
It is only the fallibility of the fleshy things in charge that prevents this. Yet, while their travails of late are welcome proof that money alone does not guarantee success, it is also evidence that it does basically guarantee some half-measure of it. Since Sir Alex Ferguson left in 2013, United have endured their most fallow spell since the 1980s, but have still featured in six out of nine Champions Leagues. This is the first season since 1995/96 that Arsenal have not been in European competition. And since their inaugural Champions League appearance in 2010/11, Spurs had not finished outside the top six until last season’s seventh place. Basket-cases they may be, but the floor for these clubs is high.
The ceiling for the rest, scandalously low. In the past 20 years, only Spurs themselves have broken properly into the upper echelons without being bankrolled by petro-billions. Under ENIC’s ownership they have hardly been scratching about in penury, but they didn’t exactly buy their way in either. They bought – and sold – shrewdly and smartly, yet the biggest factor behind them consolidating their position at the pinnacle was that they were able to get there in the first place.
Notwithstanding Leicester’s obscene feat in 2015/16, the Champions League places have gone to those who were always meant to have them. Only eight English teams have featured in the group stage in the 20 years since England’s allocation rose to four, whilst so many others have come close. Everton have finished fifth three times since then, and fourth once, losing in the qualifying round to Villarreal. That same season, Bolton were only three points behind them. Blackburn were within four points in 2005/06, and Newcastle the same in 2011/12. Aston Villa have found themselves in the hunt numerous times, Southampton within a win in 2015/16. Wolves have been here before, so too West Ham, and Leicester have missed out on the final day for the past two seasons. And for the perfect paradigm of what awaits those who miss out, look no further than their current predicament.
Realistically, fifth place is more or less the limit. And, with the new overseas TV deals said to take broadcast revenue over the £10 billion mark, its distribution still weighted in favour of those clubs at the top – added, of course, to the mammoth sponsorship deals and continental competition levies that the big clubs will continue to pocket – this is a ceiling that will only solidify. The already enormous wealth gap will continue to grow, and the top tier will finally be ringfenced for good. It goes without saying that this is to the league’s ultimate detriment.
But what to do about it? In some corners, it has been mooted that the only way to save the Premier League from the path it is barrelling down is for the European Super League to be waved through. Provided there were a promotion and relegation system in place, removing the Big Six™ would remove the disparity, reinstating the fundamental sporting integrity of the Premier League on an equal footing, or so the theory goes.
But this doesn’t quite wash. Removing the Big Six™ would be exactly that: a removal. Cultural institutions would be torn from communities, catapulted into some pan-European stratosphere that only exists online. And, given that over half of the Premier League’s broadcast revenue now comes from abroad, it seems inevitable that the money would follow: an exodus that would surely damage the English game. Which is something very few of us want. For all its issues, its gross inequality and its rank decadence, its cat-kickers and its sports-washers and the whole ludicrous, 24-hour, Insta-fuelled circus of it all, most of us like having the world’s elite league here. It is one of the only elite things we have left.
Besides, there is a suggestion that these problems are addressable. To look at the burgeoning middle class of the Premier League is to see a clutch of clubs in rude health. Players like Phillipe Coutinho, Conor Gallagher, Christian Eriksen, Raphinha, Emanuel Dennis, James Maddison, Donny van de Beek and Allan Saint-Maximin all find themselves in the bottom half, and the calibre of manager throughout the league is absurd. There is, at the risk of going all Reaganomics, a trickle-down effect here. Not to the Football League – that is another matter for another day – but within the division itself. The commercial draw of the bigger clubs is enriching those beneath them.
It plainly needs to do so more. There has been interminable talk of salary caps and tighter controls on sponsorship funding, à la the NFL, but each come with monumental logistical challenges and need a hitherto-absent collective will to make them happen. A place to start, however, would be an overhaul of the prize money structure. Lead here could definitely be taken from an NFL draft system that has seen the Cincinnati Bengals go from the lowest-ranked franchise to the Super Bowl in two years, with those who finish lower receiving a greater share of the pot. Whilst this does come with potential competitive issues, and is unlikely to garner immediate support, a fully equal distribution is the very least that could be introduced.
There are no easy answers, but whatever they are, we need them soon. With the Super League still skulking in the shadows, and the ravages of the pandemic looking ever more like a momentary blip in the balance sheets, this does feel like a tipping point. After which, the top of that table is set in stone forever, just with added Newcastle. And I’m not even sure if Newcastle want that.
Ed Capstick – follow him on Twitter