SOMETIMES you have to wonder what people really want from their football. As 2015 became 2016, critics were calling the Premier League one of the poorest in memory. The reasoning behind their thinking? Aside from the odd poor game – although TV broadcasters would have us believe that there are NO poor matches in the Premier – that view is founded on the fact that teams like Leicester City, Crystal Palace and West Ham had enjoyed good first halves of the season, and that the traditional heavyweights were not firing on all cylinders. Explanation? It must be a weak field.
But it’s not at all. The media is generally very pro the big clubs – if I had a pound for every Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester United fan that sits behind a newspaper sports desk, I would be a very rich man. There’s an incredible bias towards these clubs that has, understandably to some extent, been honed over many years. Chelsea and Manchester City, now there’s a slightly different story. Both clubs command many column inches, but far fewer journalists are simpatico to the “Johnny come latelies” that have benefitted from inflated investment from Russia and the Middle East.
Chelsea’s cheap defence of their title and the variable temperature of City’s performance, both of which draw amplified attention due to the budgetary outlay of both clubs, have led some football writers to wallow in schadenfreude, especially in the case of Chelsea and the demise of Jose Mourinho. Coupled with the lack of enterprise of Manchester United and Liverpool’s false dawn under Klopp, the impression is there are no stand-out sides this season.
But is this really true? Leicester City have had an incredible time of it and although they have struttered only slightly, they are now credible top four contenders. You do not get lucky for 22 games. It’s unlikely they will win the title, but the same was said of Nottingham Forest in 1978, Aston Villa in 1981 and Leeds United in 1992.
Leicester’s bid has been largely discounted by the “experts” and Arsenal’s [growing] challenge, in some quarters, is a case of “if they don’t win it this season, they never will under Wenger”. In other words, the Gunners will be default winners if they finish with their first title since 2004.
As for City, they can be brilliant one minute, clumsy the next – the classic behaviour of all-star team building that takes time to gel. Five defeats is a lot at this stage of the season for champions-elect, so City will need to be more consistent to prove the doubters wrong.
At the moment, there are three teams in the frame and although we all like a fairy story in football, the resources, experience and clout of City and Arsenal are likely to come through.
But doesn’t this scenario make for a more interesting campaign than a Chelsea, City or United running away with the title, which in itself attracts the criticism that the Premier is weak? Monopolies that destroy competition ruin a football league. When there are one or two teams that can realistically win a league, it means the rest are confined to securing “little victories” and creating the odd upset. The Premier is arguably the most interesting across all the main leagues this season:
France Paris St. Germain have an astonishing 21 point lead after 21 games – that’s a point per fixture. The title race is over. PSG’s budget dwarfs the rest of Ligue 1 and this season that has really come home to roost. The margin of success has taken a big step forward: last season it was eight points; in 2013-14 it was nine; in 2012-13 PSG won by 12.
Germany Bayern Munich went into their winter break with an eight point lead at the top of the Bundesliga. This suggests the gap between Bayern and their nearest challengers, this time Borussia Dortmund, may be increasing once more. Last season, it was a 10-point margin at the end of the campaign – Bayern are on target to make that even bigger in 2015-16. Last season, everyone was crowing about Wolfsburg being “only” 10 points away, but in 2013-14, Bayern won the title by 19 points and in 2012-13, Dortmund were 25 behind. Basically, like PSG it will be four on the bounce for Bayern.
Italy The big story this season is Juventus’ lack-lustre start to the season and their pursuit of the leading teams. This race is almost run as Juventus have won 10 games in a row and are now just two points behind Napoli. Four teams have topped Serie A since the early results: Inter, Fiorentina, Roma and Napoli. While everyone was rubbing their hands and writing off Juve, they have recovered from their early-season malaise and will probably claim top place in a week or two. Juve have won the scudetto for the past four seasons – they now look likely to secure a fifth. Last season, the margin was three points, in 2013-14 it was 17, in 2012-13 nine and in 2011-12 just four.
Spain It’s not often that anyone breaks the Barca-Real duopoly, but Atletico Madrid are at it again this season. Despite losing so many players over the past couple of years, Diego Simeone’s side currently top La Liga, although Barcelona have a game in hand. It’s currently surprisingly close, with Villareal also hanging in there in fourth, just seven points behind the leaders. But the most recent round of matches underlined the ferocious power of Barca and Real – 6-0 v Bilbao and 5-1 v Gijon respectively.
Netherlands Pretty much business as usual with the Dutch. After relinquishing their Eredivisie crown to PSV Eindhoven last season, ending a four–year winning stretch, Ajax are back on top. PSV are chasing and, guess what?, the other team in the Dutch triumvirate, Feyenoord, are in third.
Scotland In times gone by, you would argue that it was all about Celtic and Rangers, but with Rangers’ decline, Celtic have had it all their own way for the past four seasons. How Celtic, and Scottish football, need the return of the Old Firm, if only to produce an alternative to one-club dominance.
Getting back to the Premier, if you judge the relative strength of a league by the number of outstanding individual teams, then perhaps there is some argument that there may be something of a change going on. There may just be greater strength in depth in the Premier than in previous years. This could be attributed to the overall wealth of the Premier clubs – Deloitte is soon to release its Football Rich List 2016 and it will be interesting to see how Premier clubs fare. In 2015, no less than eight (Manchester United, Manchester City, Chelsea, Arsenal, Liverpool, Tottenham, Newcastle and Everton) featured in the top 20.
Admittedly, there is wealth and there is uber-wealth, but the differential between a £40m player and £20m player in terms of ability is not x2. Therefore, if the overall affluence level has increased in the Premier, there could be a closing of the gap in progress. Of course, this argument may get blown out of the window if City and Chelsea start flexing their wallets before the end of January.
There’s another way to test the power of the Premier and that’s measuring it against the rest of Europe, specifically in the Champions League. City, Chelsea and Arsenal all got through, but United went out at the group stage this season. Arsenal made hard work of getting out of a group containing Bayern, Dinamo Zagreb and Olympiacos. In recent years, Premier clubs’ performance has slipped and this has endangered the fourth European Champions League spot. This does suggest that the Premier is trailing behind, for example, the German and Spanish clubs.
So what can we make of all this? We should actually relish the fact that the Premier is a bit more unpredictable than usual – not necessarily weaker. Arsenal are stronger than they were, Tottenham more predictable and Leicester a revelation. City have the squad to rise to the surface, and surely will, but United have identity problems – they are not happy with themselves. Chelsea are in need of a reboot and Liverpool will undoubtedly look more like a Klopp team in 2016-17. In all probability, the old order will be restored very soon, but let’s sit back and enjoy a tight title race. It could be 1971-72 – one of the most exciting finales in history – all over again. If we’re lucky!