Saturday 16 December 2017

The league nobody wants to win

With so much at stake on home turf, Europe is taking a back seat for England's leading clubs

Wenger has insisted that there is another way instead of throwing money at a problem Photo: Reuters
Wenger has insisted that there is another way instead of throwing money at a problem Photo: Reuters

Dion Fanning

On New Year's Eve, the Times reported that Chelsea's position in the Premier League was giving the club's executives added concern because they hadn't inserted relegation clauses in the players' contracts. If they find themselves in the Championship next year, Roman Abramovich's club will still have a wage bill of approximately £200m.

Chelsea are unlikely to go down this season, and the executives at the club might not need to be too concerned about their oversight, but they cannot be complacent. When Chelsea reached the halfway point in the season last week they were only three points above the relegation zone. In August, that too would have seemed improbable.

Over the second half of the season, there will be a readjustment to the table. Leicester will fade and the title may be decided between Manchester City and Arsenal, but in a league with no outstanding teams, the turmoil will continue.

For it to be newsworthy in the final days of 2015 that the champions are concerned about the financial consequences of relegation is an indication of how anarchic the Premier League season has been.

Whatever corrections are applied between now and May, there has already been enough evidence that things are changing in English football, not necessarily because of a rise in standards.

In 1973, a journalist enthused to Alf Ramsey about a five-goal game he had just watched. Ramsey was appalled. "But you cannot have enjoyed it. There were so many mistakes, so much unprofessional play."

When Arsenal, Manchester City and Chelsea play their last 16 Champions League games next month, they will likely pay a high price for their unprofessional play. Arsenal may well have paid that price already. They scrambled through to the knockout stages dramatically, but they face Barcelona over two legs and, despite their form in the Premier League, this could be too much for them.

If Arsenal go on to win the Premier League this season, they won't care about another failure in Europe. Arsene Wenger's arrival in England led to a broadening of the league's horizons. He was a visionary who found a knowledge gap and capitalised by creating a great Arsenal side which won the double in 1998.

Wenger went on to win two more titles with Arsenal, but if they were to win it again after a gap of 11 years, it would be strangely fitting to do so as English football makes a comfortable retreat from Europe.

This season may be viewed as the year which confirmed some beliefs. The excitement in the Premier League has ensured it is more talked-about than ever. The idea that the league was uniquely competitive, a competition where anybody could beat anyone on a more regular basis than elsewhere in Europe, rarely stood up to scrutiny. This year, however, it is possible to believe that the myth is becoming reality.

As a consequence, the Premier League might be tempted to withdraw from Europe, at least unconsciously. When the new TV deal begins next year, a club finishing in the top four is expected to receive approximately £140m. More importantly, as the Swiss Ramble blog has pointed out, all Premier League clubs already receive more TV money than all but five clubs in the rest of Europe - Real Madrid, Barcelona, Juventus, Internazionale and Milan. Next season, only Barcelona and Real Madrid will receive more money than the Premier League club which finishes bottom.

In theory, this should make clubs more competitive in Europe, but the competition they face domestically, as demonstrated this season, might make that more difficult.

With a gruelling league schedule and two domestic cups, English teams may not be as prepared in Europe as clubs from other leagues. Whether they care is a different matter.

There is not the financial imperative to qualify for the Champions League there once was. The money might be nice, but it is no longer urgent. The finest talents have left the biggest teams, heading mainly for Spain, or, in the case of Alex Ferguson, for retirement.

Behind them, there are now well-run and prudent clubs. Last February, David Bick, who heads a sports business consultancy, pointed out to the Sunday Independent that the middle rank of clubs in the Premier League are far more astute in using their resources than those at the top.

At the time, Leicester City were bottom of the Premier League, so it didn't appear to apply to them, but their run to avoid relegation last season and to move to the top has focused attention on the astuteness of their signings.

They have also seen marked improvement from players like Jamie Vardy, while Riyad Mahrez has been the most dangerous player in the league. Leicester may not win the title but if they keep those two players, as well as Danny Drinkwater and N'Golo Kante, fit for the remainder of the season, they could be in the Champions League positions.

Eight players have started 15 or more games for them this season and this team cohesion is their strength, but it might yet become a weakness if they lose key performers. They had scored in every game this season until their final two games of 2015, when they lost at Anfield and drew with Manchester City.

Stoke City and Crystal Palace are other examples of clubs who have had rigid pay structures, but have used the TV money to bring in players of greater quality.

The depth in the Premier League has been provided in part by clubs in Greater London. Gary Neville highlighted the divide earlier this season and the performances of Watford, Palace and West Ham have demonstrated the economic power.

Meanwhile, Sunderland and Newcastle flounder. These great northern clubs of English football can hope for nothing more than survival, and even that may be beyond them.

If it is a league nobody wants to win, it may explain why Tottenham are considered contenders. Mauricio Pochettino is a hard man, and if Tottenham still lack certain qualities, they no longer lack the ones that ruled them out when the big prizes were being decided for many years.

Spurs, Arsenal and, of course, Leicester would be thrilling champions. They would in different ways defy convention. In an age of football academies, the story of Harry Kane offers an indication of their fallibility. Kane was on Arsenal's books as a seven-year-old before being released a year later (football is a cruel game, even for eight-year-olds).

He spent some time at Tottenham being sent on the kind of loan deals which suggest a club sees no real future for the player, but he is now invaluable. If Tottenham are to develop under Pochettino then the manager needs to remain more important than the chairman Daniel Levy. Jamie Vardy is an even more unlikely story, and one which also has clubs reflecting on their recruitment policies.

And then there is Wenger. For a few years, it has seemed as if the kindest thing would be for him to depart. Arsenal may yet make the same mistakes this year, but they are in a position where they can triumph.

Wenger has insisted that there is another way instead of throwing money at a problem. He has insisted there is virtue in methodical team-building. All of that is true, but his most important players are Mesut Ozil, Alexis Sanchez and Petr Cech, who have all arrived to solve problems.

But the manager has survived when it seemed unlikely. As he told L'équipe in the most fascinating interview of the season. "You have to find a balance between your masochistic capability to endure what you're being put through and the pleasure of accomplishment. Today, my masochistic capability must be bigger so as to express my passion. I've reached that point. I do many things that make me suffer." Maybe this year, the suffering will come to an end.

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