Friday 20 September 2019

Jason Burt: 'Top-heavy, four-tier league could lose its edge'

Emerging divisions may lead to fewer competitive games, writes Jason Burt

Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp look set to battle it out in a two-horse race for the Premier League. Photo: Catherine Ivill/Getty Images
Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp look set to battle it out in a two-horse race for the Premier League. Photo: Catherine Ivill/Getty Images

Jason Burt

Where there was chaos, there now appears to be order. Where there was a divided Premier League of a 'Big Six' and 14 others fighting for their lives, there now appears to be even greater stratification.

After 15 games, four mini-leagues within a league have emerged. The table is stark and, beyond movement within those four mini-leagues, unlikely to change, even with a little more than two-thirds of the fixtures still to go. The battle lines are drawn and are pronounced.

It is to Liverpool's credit that Manchester City have not reduced one of those leagues to being their own.

The fact that only six teams in the 26-year history of the Premier League have made a better start to a season than Liverpool is remarkable given that those others were all top.

Jurgen Klopp's side are two points behind City, with the sense that they are clinging on before the inevitable happens.

If those two are going for the title, then the other three leagues can quickly be defined. There are three London clubs - Tottenham Hotspur, Chelsea and Arsenal - contesting the other two Champions League places.

Jurgen Klopp. Photo: Alex Livesey/Getty Images
Jurgen Klopp. Photo: Alex Livesey/Getty Images

Despite the protestations of Jose Mourinho, no one really expects Manchester United to force their way in, as they sit eight points behind. They are 15 goals behind fifth-placed Arsenal, which, arguably, equates to another point.

United occupy the next tier and are not even at the top of that. Along with Everton, Bournemouth, Leicester City, Brighton, Watford, Wolverhampton Wanderers and West Ham United, they are what would traditionally have been termed mid-table.

Below that, there are seven teams defined by the damning fact that they have collected fewer than a point per game.

Newcastle United are at the head with just 13 points - an average of 0.87 per game. Over the course of the season that would give them 33 points - which sounds terrible but would probably be enough to avoid relegation.

Burnley manager Sean Dyche. Photo: PA
Burnley manager Sean Dyche. Photo: PA

The expectation is that this season could even beat the lowest points total needed to avoid going down - which would have been 31 in 2009-10.

In that fight are Burnley who were the outlier last season, finishing seventh, and whose manager Sean Dyche subscribes to the theory that the buying power of the Big Six means that the first aim for many others is to stay up.

Dyche, though, accepts that this season is different again.

"I think it comes and goes. About 10 years ago, there was a lot of talk about whether it was three divisions in one," he said. "Then, last season, it more or less separated into two, and now it's broken away again.

Crystal Palace's Roy Hodgson. Photo: Bryn Lennon/Getty Images
Crystal Palace's Roy Hodgson. Photo: Bryn Lennon/Getty Images

"Manchester United are the anomaly. They're close to getting it right, and then not getting it right, and then they are. They're still a fantastic club and group of players.

"Over a season, I'd imagine that will work itself out. But the rest are fighting to win, to get points on the board, and fighting for league position."

Squad depth appears to be the key this season, Teams such as West Ham, Brighton, Leicester and Watford have more beyond their core of 13-14 players to call upon.

Others, such as newly-promoted Fulham, have spent big but appear unstable, while the likes of Crystal Palace are very dependent on their first choices.

Palace are also in the relegation-threatened group, although manager Roy Hodgson argues that will change and that the league has not already become defined.

"It is going to be harder for the middle group to break into that (top group) than it will be for the so-called bottom group to get into the middle," Hodgson said.

"Last year, we were looking up, but we passed a lot of teams along the way that were at this stage of the season doing brilliantly.

"But come May, funnily enough we found ourselves above them. So, we know it can be done. We also know how hard it is, but the fact we know it can be done also gives you heart."

Indeed, last season, 11 teams were in the relegation zone at some point.

Outside the Big Six, only Burnley, Brighton and Watford did not drop into the bottom three. It appears unlikely that quite so many will be affected this time as the concertinaed nature of the bottom half of the league has changed.

Maybe, though, the biggest danger lies at the top. When Leicester hit the front after a third of the season three years ago, just eight points separated the top 10 teams. Already this season the gap is 20.

It raises the danger the Big Six could become a Big Five or even a Big Four, which may mean fewer competitive games.

When it is six teams, then there are, logically, 30 big matches a season. If it is five, that drops to 20, and if it becomes four, it is down to just 12.

After arguing the broadcast revenues meant every team were competitive it seems, for now, the league has stratified into four. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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