On Monday, the Mailbox posed the question: do neutral fans want to see Manchester United beat Manchester City on Sunday in order to spice up the title race? The answer was an almost unanimous ‘no’ – people wanted to see Pep Guardiola’s men trounce United and extend their lead at the top of the table.
A huge measure of this is simply because Manchester United could not be more transparently the baddies if they marched around with skulls on their hats twirling their long moustaches and tying women to railways. Despite having won just two proper domestic trophies in the four seasons since Sir Alex Ferguson’s departure in 2013, there is still plenty of fun to be had in watching this huge empire slowly brought to its knees from within – particularly with the intentionally dislikeable Jose Mourinho as their Darth Vader-like public face. Not even the presence of lovely, lovely Juan Mata can save them.
Despite all this, our desire to see Manchester City open up the gap at the top is a contradiction of most football fans’ most fervently expressed wish: for the Premier League to have a different set of challengers every year, rather than effectively being a mini-league for the same four to six clubs every year. Leicester City’s title triumph was so unlikely and thrilling precisely because we all love to see the hegemony smashed, even if only for one season.
This contradiction seems odd until you consider that while most fans will say they want an egalitarian league, when push comes to shove, we quite like having a handful of huge dynasties to punch against. We say we’re sick of seeing the big teams on TV every week, but we all let out a collective grumble when Sky’s selected games in the last weekend of October were Brighton v Southampton, Leicester v Everton and Burnley v Newcastle.
The constant moans about the quality of Premier League football below the big six are familiar by now, yet last season only six points separated Southampton in eighth from Watford in 17th. It’s a similar story so far this season: West Brom are currently three points outside the relegation zone with the season almost 40% complete, yet the bottom half is so tight that they could conceivably be in the top half by Christmas.
The issue with everyone having roughly equally talented squads is that it proves Groove Armada correct: when everybody plays the same, we get tired of watching them. Though they will be of utmost importance to the fans of each team this weekend, the pundit-eyebrow-o-meter would not register strong readings in either direction whatever the outcome of Crystal Palace v Bournemouth, Huddersfield v Brighton, or Swansea v West Brom on Saturday. The FA Cup third-round draw highlights the same thing: everyone wants one of the big six teams or a local derby, and practically anything else is met with a shrug.
The point is not to denigrate the standing, style or identity of any of those sides, but to highlight the role the titans play in bringing stories to the competition. Watching two blokes brawl in a car park might be a more even fight, but make one of them fight a nine-foot giant in the centre of a colosseum and you’ve got yourself a box office attraction. The legend of David wouldn’t quite be the same if he had valiantly slain Keith the Average instead of Goliath.
The objection, of course, is that the big six have access to so much more money, and cash is so overwhelmingly powerful that those clubs can practically maintain their position regardless of how badly mismanaged they may be. It’s a fair gripe – I’m fortunate to support one of the big six men’s teams, but I know from the women’s football team I support and volunteer for how frustrating it is to have limits placed on your club’s ambitions for no reason other than financial constraints.
But while there are understandable concerns about the cause, having a handful of big clubs is not so much an issue as something to enjoy – not least because it helps contextualise the achievement of one side pulling away and turning that into a one-horse race. We will forever talk about Barcelona circa 2010, Milan in the late 80s and early 90s, and Liverpool in the 70s and 80s not only because of their phenomenal European achievements, but because they were up against a small clutch of other wonderful sides in their domestic competitions.
Depending on your criteria, English football has not had a team you could straight-facedly nominate as an all-time great side since Manchester United’s Champions League winners in 2008, Arsenal’s 2004 Invincibles, or the treble-winning Manchester United of 1999. If Manchester City can continue their run throughout the season, smashing records and opponents left, right and centre, then we may well have a new team to insert into that conversation.