THE PREMIER LEAGUE, thankfully, has finished and the FA and the clubs must be breathing a collective sigh of relief. It has been a peculiar campaign, unprecedented in so many ways, but even without the disruption of the pandemic, it has not been a classic year.
Liverpool fans, will, of course, claim it is the greatest of all modern seasons, their 30-year wait for a league title unleashing no small amount of high spirits on Merseyside. A whole generation of fans experienced what the Koppites of the 1970s and 1980s enjoyed almost every year during the club’s golden era. Manchester United’s fans arguably felt the same in 1993 when they ended a 26-year period without the championship.
Between 1975-76 and 1989-90, Liverpool won 21 major prizes, including 10 league championships. When United ended a barren period in their history in 1993, it started a 20-season run that yielded 22 trophies. Liverpool’s title drought has ended, will it herald the start of a similar period of domination?.
No race at all
Liverpool and Manchester City were streets ahead of the rest of the Premier, the gap between second and third was, for the second consecutive season 15 points. The gulf between first and second 18 points. There was not really a title race at all, Liverpool were champions-elect almost from the start, the unluckiest of losers in 2018-19 just carried on winning, determined to land the Premier while Manchester City suffered from trophy fatigue and a suspect defence. For all their good football at times and 102 goals, City were still very short of a third successive title. A year ago, they were being talked of as the Premier’s greatest team – the same accolade now being handed to Liverpool.
Liverpool and City have created a “big two” – heavily resourced, top talent in key areas and the two best managers in Europe, arguably the world. Liverpool lost just three games, but two of those came after the race had been won. Of the top six, only Manchester City beat Liverpool while City themselves were beaten by neighbours United, Liverpool, Chelsea and Spurs. Liverpool’s win rate was phenomenal (84%) with 18 victories from 19 Anfield games. Their success was as much about their system than individuals, Klopp’s methods proving irresistible and the culmination of nearly five years in charge. What’s more, Klopp has hit upon a way to beat the City machine – not every time, but in some important meetings. His record against Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City is played 10, won 5, drawn 2 and lost 3.
The past three seasons have seen Guardiola’s City develop into a side in his own image in 2018 when they were champions by 19 points (Liverpool were 4th, 25 points behind City). Klopp’s team made up massive amounts of ground in 2018-19 to finish runners-up with a Champions total and one point less than City. Liverpool have now leap-frogged them. In that three season spell, Liverpool have gained an extra 24 points while City have lost 19.
As it stands, it is difficult to see anyone challenging this duopoly in 2020-21. The margin between top and third this season was a massive 33 points, seven more than 2018-19 and 10 more than 2017-18. It is doubtful if there has ever been a bigger gap between the title challengers and the also-rans than in the past three years. What does this say about the current strength of the Premier League? Is it that Liverpool and Manchester City are so strong they just pulverise all opposition? Or is it that Liverpool and City are the best and there’s simply a lack of strength in depth?
Several clubs appear to be going through some sort of transition at the moment. Equally, there are a few that have issues to deal with, such as ownership, management and finances.
Manchester City’s triumphs over the past few years were seen as an inevitable consequence of the investment made in the club – City (like most teams) bought success. Liverpool’s achievement is slightly different and more reflective of their US ownership. Sure, they have spent profusely, but they have also sold heavily. Their wage bill is bettered only by the two Manchester clubs.
The Premier has become a series of mini-leagues, but it could be in danger of further polarising in the way that Real Madrid and Barcelona have dominated Spanish football for decades and the manner in which Celtic and Rangers preside over Scottish football. At present, it is looking like a strong Liverpool-City axis. But what of the other members of “the six”? Manchester United will be relieved to have made the Champions League, but their lack of success and loss of continuity have damaged their brand. United’s fortunes change by the week – a few wins and seemingly, they have a bright future, a few defeats and the club is in freefall. Expectation and a lack of succession planning have really derailed the club and they are no longer a major European force – for the time being. Mason Greenwood is their latest hope, until he isn’t.
Chelsea have also slipped, although as in the past, when the project looked to be getting stale, Roman Abramovich has started to spend money. They have already started constructing the team Frank Lampard wants and fourth place and a FA Cup final will be seen as a first-season success. Chelsea are still some way behind Liverpool and City, but with new faces, they could be contenders again soon.
Game of the People predicted Wolves and Leicester might reach the top six in 2019-20 and they looked as though they would make a poor tipster happy for much of the campaign. Wolves missed out to Tottenham, a club that seems to have lost its way, despite that magnificent new stadium. The marriage between Spurs and José Mourinho is an uncomfortable arrangement and most likely will not last too long. The story is well known to everyone and the game has moved on since 2003-2007 when Mourinho’s philosophy represented the pragmatic ethos needed to win trophies. The question about whether Mourinho is as pivotal as he once was can be answered by almost anyone with a post-match pint of beer in their hand. Do Spurs’ management realise that every dog has his day?
Outside of the top eight or so, the Premier has looked very average and the teams at the bottom have been very poor at times. There were exceptions, notably Sheffield United who made the best of their resources and very nearly claimed a European place. Arsenal finished outside the top six for the first time since 1995 and looked to be in disarray for long spells. The obsession with finding the “new Pep” or “new Klopp” has arrived at the Emirates Stadium and the appointment of Mikkel Arteta seemed to tip the hat in the direction of “if he’s one of Pep’s men, he must be good”. He may prove to be out of the same mould, a hope that will grow if the Gunners win the FA Cup, but next season will be the true test. If Arteta is not an instant success in 2020-21, Arsenal may be in the market again.
Money, of course, dictates the narrative and the gulf between the very top and bottom is now as dangerous as a gaping wound. The pandemic may yet deliver mortal blows to clubs lower down the pyramid, but the Premier League should come through intact. The arrival of possible Saudi Arabian owners in Newcastle, and the enthusiasm of many fans, highlights that despite criticism of clubs with wealthy backers, fans yearn for owners that can make their favourites into winners. At Arsenal, they don’t like their American owner and yearn for a more competitive club, the type of club that many of their fans dislike, perhaps. The Premier League has been evolving into a two-speed competition for some time, but have we reached a point where it will be a case of shaking the hand of mammon in order to remain relevant for some clubs?
Amid rumours of European Super Leagues, restructuring of UEFA competitions and a Club World Cup, the Premier continues to be the most attractive league for broadcasters, sponsors, owners and investors. But will it remain so if it continues to polarise and it merely becomes “Liverpool, City and 18 others”? In 2020-21, the FA needs the Premier to open up again to become more democratic. Why? Monopolies and duopolies are boring, but really because one day, the fans might realise their club has been consigned to the also-rans and the league is a foregone conclusion. You could apply that same sentiment to Germany, France and Italy at the very least.
It is a dysfunctional football world in so many ways. The financial imbalances that have long existed seem to be growing and one-eyed fanaticism seems to be getting more partisan. The game is obsessed with virtue-signalling – what was the retirement of the shirt of a young player who had played less than 50 games really all about? – self-importance and commercial opportunism.
The Premier may be exciting, glamorous and eye-catching, but it is not necessarily the best football league. It is almost certainly the most intensively marketed. We’re all hooked, as evidenced by the absence of serious questioning about the wisdom of restarting football during the pandemic when more critical aspects of daily life, such as education, were still in chaos. Has football merely strengthened its position as the most important of the unimportant things in life?