LIVERPOOL are top of the Premier by a substantial margin and the odds are they will win the Premier League for the first time and lift the Koppites’ first title since 1990. Six or seven years ago, that would have seemed a fairly unlikely scenario as Liverpool had – temporarily – moved out of the elite bracket. Jürgen Klopp was hired to bring the good times back to Anfield and it has worked, although it would be foolish to prematurely place the laurel wreath around his neck and equally impetuous to lay a wreath of condolence at the doors of the Etihad stadium.
Among the top six clubs, there is an air of discomfort about 2019-20. Leicester City are in second place, another tale of the unexpected, Wolves are fifth and, the biggest surprise of all, Sheffield United, are in sixth place. Burnley are seventh, ahead of both Arsenal, Manchester United and Tottenham. Only three of the recognised top six clubs are actually occupying the first half dozen places in the table: Liverpool, City and Chelsea, with the latter seven points ahead of fifth-placed Wolves. Tottenham, in 10th, are 20 points worse off than Liverpool.
With underperformance and over-expectation comes managerial uncertainty. Tottenham, in their post-Champions League hangover, have already moved to dismiss their manager, perhaps one of the biggest shocks of recent times, and the vultures are circling around Old Trafford and the Emirates.
No place for cycles
Success, before oligarchs and oil men moved in, used to be cyclical, but it is doubtful if the owners of the big clubs have ever adhered to that philosophy. Manchester United’s Ed Woodward should know all about the culture of zero tolerance towards failure – he used to work in investment banking. Therefore, when clubs like United and Arsenal start to look second-rate, it is unlikely it will be allowed to continue. Both clubs are US-owned and it is very clear that American investors expect – and get – a return. As David Conn wrote in World Soccer a few years back when US interest grew, such club owners have been attracted to the game in England by the money to be made in the Premier League. Football clubs are a “sports business”. The US owners mostly keep out of the way, but you can be sure that when the time comes to press the button, they will make decisions based on the damage being done to the franchise by a lack of success.
The definition of success has changed. For years, Arsenal’s owners were happy with top four and guaranteed Champions League football. Arsenal under Wenger did that, but when top four becomes top six and top six starts to look like top eight, the prospect of Europa rather than Champions League feels like failure. Arsenal, under Emery, have consolidated their position as a Europa club, something which cannot endure for too long. But then, did they not hire an expert in Europa League football? The cock is crowing three times at the moment in north London, with former Emery advocates turning their back on the likeable but ill-equipped Spaniard.
Meanwhile, United’s post-Ferguson decline is like a see-saw. When Ole Gunnar Solskjær has a good result, he rises in the air, but when Sheffield United get a late equaliser, he goes down again. The prospect of United being a Europa club will be unpalatable for a lot of people, not least the 75,000 who pack into Old Trafford every home game. The United faithful want OGS to be successful, because he’s almost one of their own, but United have no excuse to adopt a “make do and mend” approach, so he may never get beyond the “jury’s out” stage.
Frank Lampard at Chelsea has exceeded expectations and his young team has shown the club doesn’t really need to farm-out its talent quite so aggressively. Chelsea were not tipped to do anything this season, but they have out-performed and they look better by the week. However, when they are allowed to buy again, will they go crazy and discard their policy of giving home grown a chance? The cynics would suggest they will do just that, but it will depend on where they stand in the scheme of things. Abraham, Mount and Hudson-Odoi could save the club a lot of money and maybe, just maybe, point clubs in the direction of a novel new concept that was once – and still is in some places – the lifeblood of most clubs, a genuine commitment to youth development.
Chelsea were recently beaten by Manchester City, who seem to be blowing a little hot and cold at the moment. City have lost three times already this season and two of those setbacks were against teams they would have been expected to beat. After two seasons and five trophies, City may be experiencing something of a come-down this year, although the Champions League may become their primary target. That should be the next phase of their evolution. They have shown vulnerability this season in defence which disproves all those pundits who felt the current City team is the best ever Premier team. They may eventually prove to be the correct assessment, but they are certainly not invincible and they have shown they are human.
As for Tottenham, they have gone from being a club with a long-term and patient view to one that is now desperate for a trophy, hence they have hired José Mourinho, the ultimate transactional boss who many believed was past his best. He says it is not about him, but it has always been about José, from his time at Chelsea right through to his last appointment at Old Trafford. Maybe this latest job, coming after 11 months out of work, has brought a change of attitude, but whatever the script, and you can almost predict the outcome. Mourinho has now managed three of the big six clubs. No other manager can match this, although the history books show that Dave Sexton, Tommy Docherty, Glenn Hoddle, André Villas-Boas, Terry Neill, George Graham and Rafa Benitez have all been employed by two.
With Arsenal now bombarded with anti-Emery sentiment, it must feel like the last days of the Wenger empire all over again. There’s a difference, though. Arsenal acted and replaced Wenger before it became really toxic. Having done that, and seemingly shaken off the cobwebs, they have a coach who has lost his way and, consequently, Arsenal are now scurrying around looking for direction. Emery will go, perhaps sooner rather than later, but the spirit of unrest is also fuelled by dissatisfaction about the ownership. Tottenham will surely improve under Mourinho, who will build for 2020-21, making them an interesting soap opera for the rest of the current campaign. City will probably add to their silverware, while Chelsea will continue to improve until they are allowed to flex their wallet again.
The current situation may not be just about transition at the major clubs, it could also be that the Premier, with all its wealth, has become more competitive and even the “poorer” clubs have enough wealth to build a decent team. Although a club like Manchester United is significantly wealthier than a Burnley, the differential in player quality between a £ 20 million and £ 40 million player is surely not 100%, likewise the differential above may even be narrower. The big, rich clubs have a huge advantage. While they might only be able to play 11 at any one time, they are in a position to pick-up more big price tag players, which not only deprives others, but also means they have options when injuries and suspensions come around. It’s probably a combination of both that is making this Premier season a little more interesting than usual – increased competition and clubs going through a period of change. It happens, even in the rarefied and bizarre world of Premier League football.