Conservatism has squeezed the life from the Premier League’s middle class

Words By John Brewin Illustration by Philippe Fenner
January 15, 2018
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Manchester City might have fallen short of history, but defeat at Liverpool does not dampen the sense that they alone have been able to enjoy this Premier League season.

Liverpool may now brim with excitement and expectation, but regrets linger. Virgil van Dijk’s arrival might make up for the loss of Philippe Coutinho, but Jurgen Klopp might now wonder if signing Van Dijk and Naby Keita last summer might have kept Pep Guardiola within reach.

It has been a slog for the rest, looking down the table from those whose ambitions lie limply in City’s wake to taking in the dying of Arsene Wenger’s light at Arsenal before finally reaching Swansea, a former paragon now wracked by civil war.

Perhaps only Burnley, these days forming a single-entity mid-table ballast between the six-team elite and 13 other clubs who have scrabbled for their lives, can savour their progress and success.

A managerial panic button has been pressed seven times this season, and while Crystal Palace and West Ham are admirably clawing their way up under Roy Hodgson and David Moyes, they have cause for relief rather than revelry.

Sam Allardyce headed to Everton in November for a trademark rescue mission, only for it not actually to be required. Such was the mediocrity of others that picking up a couple of early results all but assured safety. Without a victory in five league matches, Everton still sit in ninth, seven points above the drop-zone morass.

Evertonians must now rationalise the Big Sam experience; their club will never be in trouble but shooting for the moon, as was attempted in a summer spending spree of £150 million that Ronald Koeman failed to make pay, must be ruled out.

Everton’s failed punching upwards is a prime example of the Premier League in 2018 being about knowing your place. With City at the top, and behind them United, reckless spenders by any previous measure, this is where money talks.

Huddersfield, Brighton and, to a much lesser extent, Newcastle have enjoyed the novelty of promotion, able to benefit from being allowed to raise budgets to the £67 million limit that Premier League regulations allow but in turn, financial controls stymie the rest.

Football being football, clubs spend up to the limit but would face heavy sanctions for increasing wage bills by £7m a season at a time when players and their agents expect huge salary hikes. To offer a pertinent example, £7m would pay for only four-and-a-half months of the £400,000 per week Alexis Sanchez is reported to have asked from Arsenal. Such “short-term cost control” constraints are factors in Arsenal’s inability to tie down Sanchez and Mesut Ozil to new deals on the money their representatives have been asking for. As a result, Arsenal are conceding both personnel and position.

The logic of such regulations are sound; there are no crisis clubs like Portsmouth and Leeds United around these days, or at least not in the Premier League. A debt model need not be sustained when riches of £100m minimum per club per season are flowing in, but a byproduct has been a dulling homogeneity between all but the richest clubs. Saturday afternoons can often resemble a race to be last on the Match Of The Day.

The Premier League’s multi-billionaire status has rendered it protectionist, reactionary and risk averse to such an extent that Leicester appointing Claude Puel, a Ligue 1-winning manager, and who had guided Southampton into eighth last season and a Wembley final, was viewed as a renegade move

Conservatism abounds. A dread of having to negotiate the plunging economies of scale in the Football League has made Allardyce and his ilk attractive to owners of clubs who fear dropping from the cartel. Allardyce, Moyes, Hodgson and Alan Pardew have become interchangeable operators between clubs in the lower echelon.

The Premier League’s multi-billionaire status has rendered it protectionist, reactionary and risk averse to such an extent that Leicester appointing Claude Puel, a Ligue 1-winning manager, and who had guided Southampton into eighth last season and a Wembley final, was viewed as a renegade move. The club that broke the mould with a 2015-16 title win that feels ever more improbable was derided for going off-piste.

High-concept experiments like Swansea under Brendan Rodgers and Michael Laudrup, or Roberto Martinez at Wigan and initially at Everton are now scarce. Even Eddie Howe has embraced pragmatism at Bournemouth while each of this season’s promoted clubs is fully prepared to thud and blunder.

Stadiums and TV audiences must now endure games of attack versus defence, where a club from the monied elite paws at an opponent sat deep on its 18-yard line. Such occasions are a shot to nothing for the managers of smaller clubs, but matches against peers consequently become “six-pointers”, where defeat represents disaster. There, risk and creativity are sidelined to instead play percentages.

England’s top division is regularly trailed as the league where anyone can beat anyone, and that would appear the case when Saturday results like West Brom beating Brighton 2-0 and Palace defeating Burnley 1-0 are considered.

Within an overall total of 21 top-six losses, a team below the top six has savoured victory eight times but six of those are shared between faded Chelsea (to Burnley, Palace and West Ham) and ailing Arsenal (Stoke, Watford and Bournemouth). Manchester City and Liverpool have not lost at all to such opposition, with United and Tottenham (Huddersfield and Leicester respectively) have lost just once each.

The Premier League has become a competition where 14 clubs can have only ambitions of subsistence and preservation. It is little wonder that dissatisfaction has reigned this season.

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