It’s Manchester City’s time, but eras of dominance have always existed

MANCHESTER CITY are now red hot favourites for the Premier League title and if the forecasts are accurate, it will be their fifth in 10 years and third in four campaigns. It is beginning to look like one-team dominance. But we have been there before, several times in fact since the Football League was inaugurated in 1888.

The big fear is, to quote the Carpenters’ wedding favourite, “we’ve only just begun”, and the era of City is now moving  in full stride after a decade of warm-up. In the 11 seasons since 2010-11 when City won the FA Cup, they have won 13 trophies, an impressive haul, but compare that to an 11-year stretch for Liverpool between 1975-76 and 1985-86. Their trophy collection was 18 (eight leagues titles, one FA Cup, four League Cups and five European prizes). Manchester United, between 1992-93 and 2002-03, won 11 trophies, including eight championships, and the first flourish at Chelsea under Abramovich, yielded 13 pieces of silverware between 2004-05 and 2014-15. 

Since Preston North End won the double in 1888-89, English football has been dominated, at various times, by Aston Villa, Newcastle United, Sunderland, Huddersfield Town, Arsenal, Manchester United, Liverpool, Chelsea and Manchester City. Others such as Sheffield Wednesday, Everton, Leeds United, Wolves and Tottenham have also shone brightly at times.

If the popular view is that City are now so far ahead of the competition that they will sweep-up in the years ahead, it is worth noting when assessing the relative strength of a team, there’s always an assumption the current situation will go on for ever. How often have teams been labelled “best ever” only to find they are human after all and they do eventually decline? Admittedly the situation City are in is somewhat unique, but not unique enough that others with lots of money cannot come along a build teams to challenge them.

Of the current 92 Premier/EFL teams, 43 have won major silverware, while every other team has won promotion at some point. There is not a single team that hasn’t experienced the joy of some form of success. Some have had to wait for it longer than others, some clubs have to go back over a century for their last big success. What is very clear is there is a greater level of concentration than in the past, with 73 of 87 domestic honours in the Premier League era going to the so-called big six, which represents an astonishing 84%.

Of the 2021-22 Premier League, Everton have not won a trophy or experienced promotion since 1994-95 when they lifted the FA Cup. No other club right across the 92 has had such a run, not even lower league clubs whose most notable achievement has been climbing out of the bottom tier. Only four clubs in the Premier have never won a pot, but three of those four – Watford, Crystal Palace and Brighton – have at least reached the FA Cup final and lost and all have won promotion in recent times.

Empires do not go on forever, they either run out money, lose their impetus or they get challenged by new kids on the block. Can anyone unseat Manchester City? Although they do look formidable and their financial advantages suggest a long period on the podium, there is no eternity in football. Who would have envisaged Liverpool going so long without a league title, or that Manchester United would fall from grace after Sir Alex Ferguson’s time? When Tottenham won the double in 1961, did anyone in that part of north London believe they would still be waiting for another league title in 2021? And what of Arsenal, so impressive in the early Wenger years, yet their position was gradually eroded over a decade or so. Furthermore, you look at clubs like West Ham (41 years without a cup), Wolves (ditto) and Newcastle (almost a century without a league title, 52 without any sort of silverware) and you realise these clubs have been pushed down the pecking order. There was a time when clubs like these could win things.

Manchester City will surely lead the way for a few years, but they will be challenged at some point, but let’s be clear, it will only be those with comparable resources, those they count as their peers. That’s a small band, but football being the industry it is, there is likely to be more rather than less clubs trying to join the elite, which won’t necessarily be a good thing for the game as a whole, but will further confirm the game has moved way beyond its relatively uncomplicated past.

What future for the EFL Cup?

EVER SINCE the League Cup was introduced, its future has never felt totally secure. Back in the 1960s, some teams declined to enter, some managers complained about fixture congestion, other clubs damaged the credibility of the competition by fielding scratch sides and now, clubs playing in Europe effectively get seeded. There’s no denying the League Cup will always play second fiddle to the FA Cup, but in today’s environment, because of the overwhelming focus on the Premier, the competition now almost seems like an inconvenience to some clubs.

However, anyone who believes the League Cup is not taken seriously by the top clubs should take a look at the participants in recent finals. In six of the last 10, two teams from the so-called “big six” have met in the final. For seven of the last eight, the cup has been won by Manchester clubs and over 20 years, the elite half dozen have won 15. Not interested? Think again.

The issue is that the biggest clubs do not need to field their strongest teams to win the cup, indeed you could argue that the likes of Manchester City and Chelsea could actually field below-strength sides in the league and still make a challenge. 

This year’s last four features three London clubs, only the fourth time this has happened (1971-72, 2006-07 and 2007-08 are the others). In theory, the cup should be won by a side from the capital, but in 1972 when Chelsea, Tottenham and West Ham made the semi-finals, the eventual winner was unfancied Stoke City! 

There will be no shortage of motivation from at least two of the three Londoners, Tottenham and Arsenal are both eager to win anything at the moment, especially Spurs, who don’t need any reminding that their last trophy was in 2008 and was the Football League Cup. Chelsea will stand in their way in the semi-final, a team that has lost its early season verve and is suffering from illness and injury. How they could do with some of the many players they have out of loan across Europe.

Arsenal will meet Liverpool in the other semi-final. Jürgen Klopp’s side will start as favourites, but you sense the amiable German is tiring a little of the English system and its somewhat intense fixture programme. A North London derby at Wembley could be the outcome of two semi-finals in which two clubs may have other priorities.

But are people like Thomas Tuchel and Jürgen Klopp justified in questioning the number of games being played? The xenophobes would say that foreign managers knew the score when they arrived in England, but if too many games breeds fatigue and below-par performances, are they actually harming the quality of the product on offer? Let’s not forget that coaches like Tuchel and Klopp are, in their own way, perfectionists.

The Football League Cup may be superfluous in the modern game, but they are surely more worthwhile than the expensive overseas tours some clubs embark on in order to expand their global brand. One way to ease the situation could be to reduce the size of the divisions in England, the Premier/EFL constitution is still too weighty, even though some would argue it is the essence of English football, the body of 92. However, everyone has been talking about too much football since the 1960s and lo and behold, we now have more games now than they ever did in the pre-television era. At all levels, there seems to be a reluctance to reduce leagues due to a loss of income, yet is there not an argument that less football makes the game more unique and therefore, attendances could, feasibly, increase?

One of the League Cup’s charms is the two-legged semi-final, although this format also has its critics. But the alternative is yet another two games at Wembley, which would bring in the crowds – and money – but take away a unique aspect of the competition.

Traditionalists will, surely, hope the League Cup survives. The competition, in 2018-19 (the last time normal conditions existed), drew an average gate of around 14,000 – that was higher than the FA Cup (round one to final). The competition still has substance.