THERE may be four English teams in the last 16 of the UEFA Champions League, but judging by the first few months of the 2018-19 season, the concept of a “league within a league” is well and truly embedded in the Premier.
This might just be the season that the Premier picks up the Champions League, especially as Real Madrid, Bayern Munich and Barcelona are not as menacing as they have been in recent years. With Manchester City facing Schalke, United drawn to meet PSG, Tottenham paired with Dortmund and Liverpool up against Bayern, there is a reasonable chance four teams could reach the last eight. Furthermore, both Arsenal and Chelsea could feature at the business end of the Europa League.
However, outside this exclusive band, the gap between the top clubs and the also-rans seems to be growing at an early stage of the season. We all know the Premier League is a competition that gives its clubs untold riches, thanks to very lucrative broadcasting rights. This transforms clubs that have, historically, been fairly modest in their financial clout into some of Europe’s top names on paper – making the likes of Southampton a bigger club than four-time European champion Ajax.
That’s all very well, but within the Premier itself, there are huge divides that seem to be opening-up earlier than ever.
Just consider there is an eight-point margin between Mourinho’s United in sixth and Arsenal in fifth place. If the top five is one league, with Liverpool at the peak with 45 points, 11 more than Arsenal, United are heading the second mid-table mini-league, which comprises eight teams and a point range that starts with the Red Devil’s on 26 and ends with Brighton on 21. Then, finally, you have the relegation pool, with seven points separating seven teams.
There are essentially three big gaps: City to Tottenham five points; Arsenal to United eight; and Brighton to Newcastle five. It’s been coming for two years, but at this point of the season, there isn’t usually such a gulf. Last season, we saw something similar, in that there were five position differences of more than four points, including 11 between Manchester City at the top and United in second place.
We’ve known for some time that the Premier will, eventually, become far more undemocratic than it is today, that once City’s financial wealth pulled the club away from the rest, that we may face a similar situation to France, Italy and, up until this season, Germany. Premier officials have pointed to the fact that since 2012, there have been four title winners, largely due to the TV money creating a more even playing surface than in other countries. But the sheer size of City’s backers will, eventually, create a chasm built on financial power.
City have competition this season form of Liverpool. The Reds are actually top by a point, a position they held in 2013-14. But Liverpool are the only round 17 leaders from the last decade not to win the Premier after being top at this stage. Usually, the top club in mid-December wins the silverware, but City’s 44 points represents the highest points total for a second-placed team over the past five years after 17 games. Likewise, Tottenham, Chelsea and Arsenal have also run-up the best points hauls for third, fourth and fifth in that period. This suggests that the strongest teams may be getting stronger and creating breathing space for themselves, although it is reasonable to presume that Manchester United, despite their current malaise, are part of that top bracket. It also implies the rest of the division is much of a muchness. The situation does not play to any theory that the Premier is a strong league from top to bottom.
It remains to be seen if the top five can continue the pace they’ve set this season. One thing is sure, the Premier has a title race this year and may be far more compelling than 2017-18. The next meeting between Manchester City and Liverpool is on January 3, by which time the league table may look a little different…