Thursday 22 March 2018

A thrilling season that is breaking all of the rules

Leicester's Jamie Vardy. Photo: Chris Brunskill/Getty Images
Leicester's Jamie Vardy. Photo: Chris Brunskill/Getty Images

Paul Hayward

The Premier League table on day one of 2016 looks as if it has been hacked, with all the names moved around by a geek sick of seeing Chelsea, Arsenal and the two Manchester giants entrenched at the top.

This tampering with the old order has produced the most volatile (and therefore thrilling) Premier League campaign of them all - and it subverts modern economics. The richer the league becomes, the more equal it feels.

So with Leicester City, Spurs and Crystal Palace in the top five at the halfway point, the Premier League has turned into the new NFL - the American gridiron empire that roots entertainment in equality.

On this day 12 months ago, Leicester were bottom of the Premier League. They are second now. Crystal Palace were 18th. They are now fifth. Arsenal were sixth. They now lead the table. Watford were fifth in the Championship.

They are now ninth in the top division, a point behind Manchester United and Liverpool. Chelsea, the reigning champions, are sandwiched by West Bromwich Albion and Norwich in 14th position, three points above the drop, after losing nine of their opening 19 fixtures.


All three promoted teams, meanwhile, are above the relegation zone at the halfway mark, while long-term mismanagement traps Newcastle, Sunderland and Aston Villa in the bottom three.

Another interesting change shapes this landscape. Five years ago possession football became a kind of mono-religion. Crudely, everyone watched Barcelona's tiki-taka football and tried to import it. They forgot that ball rotation at Barcelona's level required not only pum-pum passing but brilliant technical ability to turn it into something dangerous. In the hands of an average team, tiki-taka was dull and posed no threat.

Now, the game has shifted in favour of greater variety. Leicester share the top of the goalscoring chart with Manchester City, on 37, but are third-bottom on possession of the ball, ahead of Sam Allardyce's Sunderland and West Brom, who are coached by the anti-aesthetic Tony Pulis. Leicester, Stoke, Crystal Palace, West Ham and Watford are all operating at less than 50 per cent possession - yet all are in the league's top half. At the same time Manchester United head the ball-retention list and have bored their fans to tears.

To make a more direct style effective, at this level, you need a higher class of defender to soak up pressure before counter-attacking, committed defensive midfielders and talented finishers. Here, the avalanche of TV money, along with expert, recalibrated scouting, is greatly helping middle-grade clubs. Leicester have Jamie Vardy (below, 15 goals) and Riyad Mahrez (13). Watford can send the ball to Odion Ighalo (14) and Troy Deeney (six).

Conversely a dearth of world-class talent is making life harder for the old heavyweights, who find it too easy to lurch into a £25million mistake. The midway stats reveal an ominously poor contribution from so-called household names. Arsenal's Mesut Ozil, Kevin De Bruyne (City), Harry Kane (Spurs), Willian (Chelsea) and Petr Cech (Arsenal) are among established stars who rate highly, but Sergio Aguero and Eden Hazard have fallen away, through form or injury.

The new turbulence has already claimed Jose Mourinho at Chelsea and still threatens to swallow Louis van Gaal at United. No wonder Claudio Ranieri, the Leicester manager who gave his team permission to celebrate New Year's Eve, calls it a "crazy" league.

Once an immutable parade of four or five global corporations, with occasional interventions by Everton or Spurs, the Premier League has emerged from the latest deluge of television money more competitive, unpredictable, meritocratic, intriguing and fun.

With the exception of Aston Villa and Sunderland (and often Newcastle), every one of the 20 top-tier teams provide stiff opposition for every other one, as if the Premier League were morphing into a richer version of the Championship, that febrile swarm of more-or-less-equal clubs.

The New Year's Day league positions evoke for many fans the 1980s and 1970s, when what you might call provincial England could still fight it out with the big cities. In the 23-year Premier League age, from 1992, Blackburn Rovers remain the only champions other than Manchester United, Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester City. Second and third in the first Premier League campaign, remarkably, were Aston Villa and Norwich City.


We must avoid overstatement. Arsenal and Man City are 5/4 and 6/4 respectively to win this title race - with a gap back to Spurs, who are 10/1. Leicester can be backed at 16/1, which points to ingrained fatalism about where the trophy usually ends up.

Certainly the halfway mark is no arbitrary vantage point. In the first 19 games the pressure is largely off for middle-ranking clubs capable of avoiding relegation. But the pressure is suddenly now on for over-achievers such as Leicester, Palace, Stoke and Watford, who lack the squad depth of the biggest clubs, and the wealth to reinforce this month, as Arsenal and Chelsea are expected to.

Three times in the past 14 years Arsene Wenger's team have looked down on New Year's Day from the summit, only to fall short in May. Wenger overlooks that detail in favour of a more encouraging one. He says: "It shows you that we have a good chance, as the statistics show you that eight of the past 11 years the team who was top on New Year's Day won it."

Coming soon to a Premier League club near you is the new TV deal worth £5.1billion (a rise of 71 per cent), the effects of which are already being felt, especially beyond the old London-Manchester cartel.

In a bizarre plot twist, the 'greed is good' league seems to have shifted towards greater fairness. We will need to check back in May, though, to see whether this is a culture change, or a passing phase viewed through festive bubbles.

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