This season has been different right from kick-off. Up to the halfway point there is no runaway leader and the previous big four are now spread throughout the table. Chelsea’s awful season has opened up opportunities for other clubs, but also Leicester City’s emergence has thrown the form book out the window. Right from the early part of the season Crystal Palace and West Ham have occupied top seven places, and Watford’s recent run has seen them move into that once longed for esteemed group.
The big clubs have struggled to put consistent runs together as what was thought just a strange start to a season has become a constant source of frustration for those who believed they knew the script. For some this is a welcome alternative to believing you could predict the top four or top six before a ball has been kicked. For others, the trend of each team beating each other has created the sense that despite losing a few matches, a club can still climb several places with a few wins. My own club, Liverpool are a case in point. Despite taking just one point from games against Newcastle, West Brom and Watford, we are only five points off a top four place.
So what is it about this season that has made it so close?
I believe there are several important factors which have all contributed. During this article I will make reference to ‘bigger’ and ‘lesser’ clubs. This is not to denigrate or disrespect any club, it is merely to demonstrate how some clubs are perceived to be perennial achievers or strugglers and how some clubs performances this season has been very different to how they were expected to perform.
First of all the Premier League is a poorer place as far as world class players are concerned. When you look back a number of stars of the world game have left these shores over the past five years or so. Players such as Suarez, Modric, Bale, Mascherano, Tevez, van Persie, Drogba, Gerrard and Lampard have all vacated the league and it is poorer for it. The likes of Aguero, Toure, Hazard, Ozil, Sanchez, Di Maria, Falcao have come in with varying degrees of success but it is difficult to say who is the best player in the league right now. Hazard was fantastic last season and a deserved player of the year but this season has been a shadow of his former self. Aguero can’t seem to string more than a couple of games together, Di Maria came in and was a complete failure and Falcao looks as if he’d be better off in another country. Ozil is beginning to show his class and Sanchez has been excellent since his arrival at Arsenal, but he’s suffering an injury at the moment.
My point is there are some decent players, some very good ones but world class? Not sure. But what does seem to have happened is we have gone back to the type of player from abroad who is given the label “he’s good but can he do it on a cold Tuesday night at Stoke?”
When the Premier League began to plunder foreign leagues for new talent this was a common problem. Often it would take foreign players a season or so to adjust to the pace and physicality of the league. Which is what made Fernando Torres debut season for Liverpool all the more stunning. Of course there have been a whole host of players who have come in and hit the ground running, but for those who possess ‘potential’ or maybe just average ability then they can take a while to settle in. Some of the ‘bigger’ clubs have gone for this type of player, a fancy dan rather than a grafter.
The new TV deal, a reported £5.14bn, has given many clubs the ability to buy players who once may have been out of reach. The equality with which the Premier League dishes out the prize money from TV has contributed to many lesser clubs being able to sign players who may only have previously come over here for the bigger clubs. Yohan Cabaye at Crystal Palace is an example. He was at Paris St. Germain and with Champions League football almost guaranteed every year, but he chose to return to England to play under Alan Pardew who’d been his boss at Newcastle.
Stoke City is another example where they have been able to sign the likes of Bojan Krkic and Xherdan Shaqiri. Bojan was signed from Barcelona, having spent time at Roma, Milan and Ajax, yet he chose Stoke City for his chance to play in the Premier League. This in no way is to suggest there is anything wrong with Stoke but Bojan is not the type of player they have attracted in the past. Shaqiri, a Swiss international, was at Basle when there was intense speculation over his next move. He was reportedly a target for Liverpool but when Bayern Munich came calling he found it too tempting to turn down. He then moved onto Inter yet Stoke managed to lure him from Serie A.
The new riches enjoyed by more clubs within the Premier League has enabled players like Cabaye, Bojan and Shaqiri to go to clubs not really considered ‘big’. The FFP rules have also had an effect on stopping the bigger clubs from just hoovering up all the best talent, and so this talent can now be spread more evenly within the league.
Many of the lesser clubs no longer just turn up at Old Trafford, Anfield or The Emirates believing they should just lay down and hand over the three points. They believe if they have a go they might be able to get something from the game. The other major contributory factor with this is the adoption of the counter attack as a tactic. Teams are happy to sit back and soak up the pressure and then hit their opponents on the break, at pace. Leicester City is a prime example of that. This has been particularly effective in enticing the bigger clubs to keep the ball, knock it around and generally show off but then when they lose it, they’re hit on the break and found to have not left anyone manning the fort at the back.
If you put these two factors together you have a toxic mix, as far as the bigger clubs are concerned, where many league games can be like cup ties with a baying crowd urging their team on as they smell the blood of big names who have spent the past ten to fifteen years lauding it as if it’s some sort of birth right.
It makes for an exciting season and with points seemingly more generously spread throughout the table then few can be sure of where they will finish until we move towards March and April.
Is this a trend or a freak?
Going back to the point about the type of foreign player who has been recruited by Premier League clubs, many of them are young and come under the ‘potential’ category. Within a few seasons many of these players should start to realise this potential and become stars. We may well find those clubs who have recruited more wisely will begin to pull away from the others again, but until this happens we can enjoy a much more equitable competition than we have had to endure for the past five years or so.