There’s a widening gap in the Premier League – and it’s not just a financial one.
There was always a “top four”, so to speak, of clubs who finished in the Champions League places every season. After that, there was a clutch of three or four teams who would threaten that group, but would likely finish in the Europa League spots. Then there would be two or three sides who were better than the rest, but not quite up to challenging for Europe. The bottom ten would be filled with middling teams, with perhaps half of time fending off relegation.
However, a look at the table now suggests an even broader split is occurring. There’s now a “top six”; a group of the richest clubs in the division who could all, supposedly, win the title. This, of course, isn’t proving to be the case this season, as Manchester City are a level above every else. Yet, only four points separate second from sixth. The teams occupying those spots? Manchester United, Tottenham, Chelsea, Liverpool and Arsenal – the powers of the last decade. Beyond them, six points separate seventh from thirteenth. Right now, Burnley, Brighton, Watford and Huddersfield round out the top half of the table. Next week, you could see Newcastle, Southampton or Leicester in there.
That could just be down to the season still being in its infancy. However, what’s interesting about all those clubs is that you’d struggle to name one that was clearly superior. It feels like the level of the league outside of the top six clubs has evened out. No longer are there clubs who are the “best of the rest” (recent seasons have seen Everton, Southampton and Stoke occupy these positions) who could, with enough luck and good management, push for a European place. You could say now that six of the European spots have already been taken, and that 14 clubs are challenging for seventh.
This development is a result of the massive financial boost every Premier League side received. The wealth at the bottom end of the table is more equal than it used to be. The advantage that some clubs had over others has disappeared now that everyone is capable of spending £20m or more on a single player. The ability to pay out higher wages than ever before has been significant as well. However, the top six have also benefited from this, so the gap between them and the rest remains as gaping as its even been, if not more so. The issue the “best of the rest” have is that, even with more money, they can’t attract the talent that’ll give them that boost. Meanwhile, the teams below them can attract better talent, and close the gap. Hence, we’ve seen this levelling out of quality in the Premier League; a universal rise of standards, if you will.
Interestingly, this hasn’t seen an increase in the league’s entertainment value. While spending on players is at an all-time high, this is being tempered by the appointments of cautious managers. A more level playing field means the danger of relegation is higher than ever. Teams such as Everton and West Ham were amongst the biggest spenders during the summer, yet find themselves closer to the bottom of the table. In the past, their underperformance might not have been punished so readily. Their reaction has been telling: West Ham have hired a pair of “safe hands” in David Moyes, while there were suggestions that Everton could bring in Sam Allardyce, the resident escapologist. Nobody wants to get relegated, especially when there’s so much money at stake.
No club has epitomised this more than Crystal Palace. Palace started the season with Frank de Boer, multi-time title winner with Ajax, in charge. The intent was to create a more progressive style of football that would see them climb the table. Four games, no goals and no points later, de Boer was binned, and in came Roy Hodgson instead. The project was scrapped the moment it seemed a relegation battle could be likely, and in its place was the tried and tested plan. Hodgson is yet another safety net manager.
With a shared fear of relegation comes a uniformity in style. Almost every club outside the top six plays in the same, reactive way. Some sides are more direct than others, but the aim is the same: ensure you don’t lose before you try to win. It’s certainly working for Watford, Burnley and Brighton at the moment. However, it’s made games between the teams outside the top six rather difficult to watch. There are certainly plenty of astute managers in the division, but the only ones willing to be aggressive and proactive are managing the top six. Nobody else wants to take the chance.
There’s now not only a gap in wealth in the Premier League, but also a difference in priority and philosophy. It can now be split in two broader groups: the wealthiest six who can attack, be expansive and aim for the top, and the bottom fourteen who can’t keep up and are terrified of the drop. The Premier League has never been more divided.