Wednesday 24 January 2018

Eamonn Sweeney: Why can’t the Premier League be like this every year?

Leicester City's Jamie Vardy celebrates with Danny Simpson. Photo: Reuters
Leicester City's Jamie Vardy celebrates with Danny Simpson. Photo: Reuters

Eamonn Sweeney

Tuesday night’s Premier League action was a bit like one of those reality TV wife swap shows. There were Leicester City playing intricate one-touch football to beat the band against Liverpool, looking for all the world like Arsenal at their very best.

Meanwhile at the Emirates Arsenal were struggling to a scoreless draw with Southampton.

Arsene Wenger’s post-match clash with Ronald Koeman and the general air of desperation were like something you’d get from an undistinguished middle to lower end of table side like, well, Leicester City. Or at least the Leicester City of old.

It may be that Wenger’s increased tetchiness of late owes something to the way The Leicester Effect has exposed the extent to which Arsenal have settled into a comfort zone in recent years. The normal Gunners season of late has involved some brave pre-season talk about a title challenge, a midway slippage which causes an odd question to be raised about where they’re going under Wenger and a strong finish which secures them a top four spot which somehow gets portrayed as having been their main target all along.

This season is different. Because in a league where Leicester can stay top for weeks on end and seriously contend for the title, making the top four isn’t that much to write home about for a club like Arsenal, is it? With Chelsea out of the running from early on, Manchester United as weak as they’ve been for a long time and Manchester City facing the run-in with a lame duck manager, Arsenal will never have a better chance to win the Premier League. That means that Wenger is probably under more pressure this year than ever before. Fourth won’t look too good if two of the slots above you are occupied by Leicester and Spurs.

Claudio Ranieri’s achievement at Leicester has implications for other managers too. It makes, for example, Roberto Martinez’s apparent satisfaction with keeping Everton in mid-table look pretty lame. And the praise showered on the likes of Mark Hughes, Ronald Koeman and Alan Pardew will also ring hollow for as long as Leicester are showing that the lesser lights of the top flight should be dreaming a little bigger.

It also raises questions about what followers of the Premier League have a right to expect. There’s no doubt that the current campaign is being looked at as a special season because of Leicester’s heroics with public interest in and affection for the League unusually high. But why can’t it be like this every year?

Leicester have shown that it’s not beyond the bounds of possibility for a mid-range team to make a prolonged title challenge. They bring back memories of the days when a Derby County, a Nottingham Forest or an Aston Villa could take the biggest prize. And in doing so they show how starved we’ve been of real competition in recent seasons.

I remember one of the Sky bods a few seasons ago opining that it was a great season because there was a real battle going on for fourth place. We’d gotten used to a situation where no matter what kind of disarray Chelsea, Manchester City and Arsenal were in they’d still get one of the Champions League slots. It will be hard to settle for that kind of thing again after what Leicester have given us.

I suppose the wheels will soon come off for the Foxes. The advantage most teams enjoy against them in terms of possession probably means that some day they’ll ship a real hammering. But the Premier League has a lot to thank Leicester for, even if some of the division’s more complacent managers probably feel Ranieri has opened up a can of worms.

Wouldn’t it be great if it was like this all the time?

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