Champions League qualification is critical to any club with delusions of grandeur, so why are Arsenal, Spurs and Manchester United playing as though they don’t even want it?
While Liverpool, Manchester City and Chelsea were taking some finalising steps over divvying up this season’s silverware at Wembley, those who sit just below them in the Premier League were continuing to trip and stumble. The north London ‘Giants’, Spurs and Arsenal, could manage precisely no goals between them against Brighton and Southampton respectively, while Manchester United and West Ham, both with home fixtures against teams with one foot already planted in next year’s Championship, at least managed four points between them, although that might have been as little as one, had it not been for the divine intervention of San Cristiano of Old Trafford and Burnley’s inability to hold onto a lead at The London Stadium.
The idea of there being a ‘Big Six‘ in the Premier League is increasingly starting to feel like another lie that we’ve all hanging onto like a comfort blanket for the last few years. Six is a solid number. It implies an amount of variation in the dividing up of silverware and jeopardy throughout the course of the season, and a genuine six-club title race would be tremendously exciting. But there is no ‘Big Six’, certainly not in terms of the distribution of silverware in recent years. It is clear that there is now a ‘Big Three’ and that at least two of those clubs – the end of the Abramovich era at least places a question mark against Chelsea – will likely continue to hoover up all the trophies put within their grasp, with the other three increasingly resembling the clubs below them in the Premier League table rather than those above them.
As such, the race for the fourth Champions League place is taking on something of the feel of a title decider this season, albeit one that none of the competing clubs actually seem to want to win. Spurs, Arsenal and Manchester United have been leapfrogging each other for the last few weeks as they stumble and limp towards the end of the season. Indeed, such has been the inconsistency of Spurs, Arsenal and Manchester United all season that it’s still impossible to rule out another late challenge from West Ham or – at least so far as fifth, sixth or seventh place in the table are concerned, Wolves.
The inability of these three teams to put together a decent run of form at this point of the season could be down to one – or more – of several different factors. With the only way to be able to even remotely chase the top three requiring the sort of big cash injection that only Champions League football can bring and with tiredness seemingly growing at the end of a schedule that has become increasingly unforgiving since the start of the pandemic, the key attribute that a team needs to get over this particular line – the ability to just grind out win after win – seems to be in short supply.
Every time one of this chasing pack starts to put together a run of form, they start stumbling, and this has been happening this season to a point at which it looks almost as though they’re self-sabotaging. Arsenal won five Premier League matches in a row and looked as though they might finally end their six-year run without Champions League football, before going on to lose four of their next five. Spurs went on an unbeaten run in the league which lasted from November 7 to January 19 and then lost five of their next eight league matches. Manchester United have won two of their last six. West Ham have done the same.
There’s a Big Three nowadays, with three clubs sitting just below them who consistently match the expectations of the three clubs above them without apparently having the wherewithal to be able to challenge them on the pitch. And if that sounds reductive, the likelihood is that if this is going to change, it’s going to reduce even further, with the pulling of Roman Abramovich’s money from Chelsea making it at least as likely that they’ll have more in common with Arsenal, Spurs and Manchester United than with Liverpool and Manchester City in a couple of years’ time.
And a big part of the problem is that the number of points required to challenge for the Premier League title is now astronomical. Manchester City’s 100-point season in 2018 and the 98 and 99 hauls that followed proved that it’s impossible to say for certain that even 85 to 90 points can guarantee a serious challenge for the title any more, and as this polarisation continues to grow, it is becoming clear that only an ever-diminishing number of clubs can have any realistic chance of getting anywhere near the top. Manchester United are, at the time of writing, in fifth place in the Premier League, 20 points behind Manchester City. The team closest to being 20 points behind United at the moment are Leeds United, and they’re two places above the relegation zone.
That’s how imbalanced it’s become; and it would be surprising that so many people seem just accept this as the way of things, were it not for the fact that the Premier League has been relatively slow in becoming something of a duopoly, as so many other European leagues have in recent years. In Scotland, only Celtic and Rangers have won the league title in the last 37 years. In Germany, this year’s Bundesliga title (and they’re nine points clear with four games to play) will be Bayern Munich’s tenth in a row. In Spain, only three clubs have won La Liga in the last 17 years, and perhaps the biggest surprise about that is that it’s as many as three.
And that question of ‘what can we do about it?’ feels redundant in a way that it never has before. The European Super League could have been a watershed moment for club football in Europe. The biggest, richest clubs, who expect the entirety of European club football to be bent to their will and theirs alone, could have been cast asunder and left to play their exhibition matches in perpetuity while the rest of us got on with actually having competitions. Instead, everybody else blinked in fear, let them straight back in, and continued to contort the game to accommodate their wants. UEFA, it turned out, weren’t against a European Super League at all. They just wanted to be the people that profited from it.
The biggest clubs behaved appallingly over the European Super League, just as they have for the last two or three decades (several of them continue to do so), but no-one was brave enough to tell them where to go, in no small part because the aim of most clubs is not to replace a system which benefits the biggest clubs to the detriment of everybody else, but to supplant those who currently enjoy those benefits. There remains little indication beyond fine words that anybody in a position to do so wants to do anything about this. The fan-led review into football’s governance proposed modest reforms through an independent regulator; Premier League clubs began furiously briefing against it almost immediately.
As such, it’s very difficult to have sympathy with anyone on the receiving end of football’s fundamental inequality. This imbalance will continue to get all the more severe, and the evidence is that no-one will do anything pro-active to stop it from growing. And while Arsenal, Spurs and Manchester United may currently be on the receiving end of this in terms of silverware, they’re beneficiaries in many other ways and deserve little sympathy. With nation states and astronomical amounts of money winning the battle for what’s left of the game’s soul, it seems unlikely that anything is going to change again soon.