Wednesday 21 March 2018

Aidan O'Hara: 'Mini' Premier League will become boring very quickly

Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger. Photo: Carl Recine
Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger. Photo: Carl Recine
Aidan O'Hara

Aidan O'Hara

Even before the weekend's events, Steph Curry and LeBron James were already regarded as more than just great basketball players. Michael Jordan might deny ever having said the words that followed him throughout his career - "Republicans buy sneakers too" - but, unlike Curry or James, he was far too fearful of a backlash on his image to stand up for anything he regarded as an injustice.

Curry and most of his Golden State Warriors team-mates had little interest in the traditional NBA champions visit to the White House but, in attempting to save face, Donald Trump uninvited them anyway. As coach Steve Kerr - whose father was murdered by Islamic terrorists while president of the American University of Beirut - put it, Trump "tried to break up with us before we broke up with him".

Curry responded that "it's kind of beneath a leader of a country to go that route" while James was more virulent in labelling Trump a "bum", adding "Going to White House was a great honor until you showed up!" Using ratings language that Trump would understand, James's tweet has been "retweeted" and "liked" more than double the amount of times than anything Trump has ever tweeted.

These are, obviously, far more important issues than what goes on on a basketball court but Curry and James's two teams, the Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers, have become so dominant as to render most of the season meaningless.

This year was the first time in NBA history that the same two teams had met in the finals for a third consecutive season and, even then, it proved to be a hammering with the Warriors winning the seven-game series 4-1.

The play-offs are meant to be the period when the best teams are tested and, in theory, it can take 28 games to be crowned champions across four best-of-seven games. Instead, the Warriors blitzed everyone in 19. But when even the competitive games are cakewalks, it makes the 82-game regular season which precedes it a pretty hard sell.

At least American sports have a draft system which, in another theory, takes the best players from college and puts them with the worst teams from the previous season. In the Premier League, in contrast, the best go to the best and the gap gets wider and wider.

Manchester United's start to the season has come with something of an asterisk given their five victories from six games have come against teams who currently lie 18th, 14th, 16th, 13th and 11th with their draw picked up against 15th-placed Stoke. Next week, they play bottom of the table Crystal Palace whose last league goal came two managers ago.

This is a vision of the league's future where the top six effectively play off in a mini-league and, within that, the top three decide the title while the others get to battle it out for the prize of avoiding playing football on a Thursday night the following season.

As he tends to do, Arsene Wenger noted the trend after Arsenal's victory on the first night of the season against Leicester which was why he felt it so important not to drop points to teams outside of the top seven. Unfortunately, as they tend to do, Arsenal lost at Stoke the following weekend to immediately put themselves on the back foot. "There are six or seven teams who can win and it makes it interesting," said Wenger. "Every point you drop can cost you a lot."

"Six or seven" might be optimistic but that chasm that is growing between the top six, Everton, and the rest means maulings like the 4-0 dished out by Chelsea this weekend or the 5-0 and 6-0 by City in the last two weeks will become more commonplace. In a league already, as Trump might put it, struggling with ratings, it means that meetings between the top teams will by even more hyped given the relatively novel prospect of a competitive encounter.

On the other weekends like the one just gone, Match of the Day highlights will resemble a backs v forwards training session as the gap becomes a chasm.

Swansea finished eighth in the league in both 2014 and 2015 and found themselves 23 and 14 points away from those in the Champions League and 22 and 21 points above the relegation zone. The following season, Liverpool replaced them with an eighth-placed finish that was, however, just six points off the top four and 23 clear of 17th.


 Liverpool's feeder club, Southampton, were the ones in eighth last season but the how close they were to the teams around them had flipped dramatically.

They finished 12 points clear of relegation, but 30 off the top four.

The Premier League likes to console itself that, unlike the rest of the continent, its teams enter European competition exhausted from difficult domestic campaigns.

"In our league, our teams have it tougher," argued Graeme Souness on that theme in post-match analysis on TV3 earlier this month. When host Tommy Martin pointed out that Real Madrid had drawn with Levante on the previous weekend, Souness reacted with a glare and words to the effect that one can use facts to prove anything.

This week, the Premier League's representatives head into the Champions League with an aggregate scoreline of 16-4 in their five matches behind them. They have, at least, tried to move away from "best league in the world" to "most competitive" to explain away why they haven't had any Premier League representation in the final of Europe's elite for the last five years. Given how easy life is for them at home at the moment, that excuse won't wash for much longer.

Irish Independent

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