The denouement of the 2017/18 Premier League season brings into sharp focus the ever-increasing gap between English football’s haves and have nots. Or does it?
Manchester City’s total dominance reflects the creeping influence that petro-dollars are now having on the modern game. Coupled with Sky Television’s largesse the seemingly limitless wealth brought to the Etihad Stadium’s table by City’s Abu Dhabi-based benefactors has propelled the once humble, underachieving blue half of Manchester into an orbit of its own, and one as far removed as is conceivable from the strictly working-class ‘Cottonopolis’ of yesteryear. Where though is the achievement of getting a 100 points in a Premier League season when that is the least such heavy investment should produce?
Assessing Pep Guardiola’s credentials as a manager fit to be recalled alongside Sir Alex Ferguson, Arsene Wenger, even Bob Paisley and Bill Shankly, has not become an easier task despite the Spaniard’s trailblazing domestic season. Does success at Bayern Munich, Barcelona and Manchester City, all rich and preeminent clubs, grant Guardiola a place in the Managers’ Hall of Fame, or can his mettle only be accurately judged by doing what Claudio Ranieri did at otherwise unheralded Leicester City? Is the pressure of wisely spending tens of millions of pounds greater than molding a side to achieve far more than the sum of its parts? I for one believe Guardiola has formidable talent, although his lack of class and humility after the rarest of setbacks does betray a brittle persona not over insulated from what one laughable now describes as “pressure”. Put simply: could Sean Dyche coach Manchester City’s current crop to the title? I would say he could. Would though Pep Guardiola achieve seventh place and a Europa League qualifying spot with Burnley’s squad? I am not so sure.
To retain Premier League status required only 34 points, a laughable less-than-a-point-a-game. Blackpool can rightly feel aggrieved that their 2010/11 total of 39 wasn’t sufficient to prevent them slipping back into the Championship, although it is difficult to come to a firm conclusion if standards have been improved, maintained, or slipped in the last seven years. Termed as a division of haves and have nots does perhaps mislead the uninitiated, as although the yawning gap of 69 points between West Bromwich Albion and Manchester City would seem to be, and is, vast, as a collective of Premier League clubs the elite twenty sides in England have never been richer. When Bournemouth can pay an aggregated £25 million for such run-of-the-mill players as Nathan Ake and Jordon Ibe, the realities of the top division’s financial power should signify a seismic shift to relative economic egalitarianism, although the abject seasons endured by many sides outside of the doomed bottom three would suggest otherwise. It was assumed that greater financial parity would close the gap between the established big six and those occupying a further two divisions of seven within the league itself. There hasn’t though been a sufficient sea-change in fortunes to suggest anything other than the smaller clubs having greater access to wealth to waste on players whose values are gratuitously inflated by the selling clubs.
Despite Stoke City, West Bromwich Albion, and Swansea City next season reacquainting themselves with life in the Championship, that far from tells the whole story of the 2017/18 season. The three worst squads, or put another way the ones least equipped for a lengthy stay in the top division, were Stoke City, Swansea City, and Huddersfield Town. The fact the last of that triumvirate stayed up as opposed to the reverse fate of the two ‘City’s’ should not be a cause for celebration when the Terriers’ total of 37 points ended up being three more than was eventually needed. A Pyrrhic victory, perhaps, although Huddersfield will care not a jot how they survived, just that they did against the better judgement of just about every football pundit. Even relegation next season will be cushioned by another large Premier League payday, and the insurance of parachute payments to accompany their eventual, but inevitable relegation.
Southampton’s have little to be proud of by escaping from the relegation zone’s maw. Despite almost annually being stripped of its most talented components, the Saints should have occupied a comfortable mid-table berth but instead found themselves embroiled in a race to the bottom with those whose company they should never have kept. Players of the calibre of Charlie Austin, Dusan Tadic, Ryan Bertrand, Nathan Redmond, and Fraser Forster, although not necessarily on the top four’s wish list, are far too good to be contemplating a 46 game 2018/19 season. It did though take the steadying guidance of Mark Hughes to steer the listing Saints away from becoming an almost certain shipwreck brought about by Mauricio Pellegrino’s anaemic, somnambulistic time at the helm. Greater questions though inevitably remain since Katharina Liebherr so drastically watered down her shareholding at St. Mary’s.
Darren Moore almost pulled West Bromwich Albion clear of the quicksand, but his appointment was perhaps a month too late. In any event installing the 44 year old Brummie was presumably seen at the time as a stop-gap measure until the end the season, giving the reins to a respected former player but one who couldn’t realistically be expected to produce the unthinkable. The fact it nearly did happen shines a light on West Brom’s squad, in a similar way to Southampton’s, that it is almost inconceivable that a roster including Ben Foster, Jonny Evans, Salomon Rondon, Jay Rodriguez, Kieran Gibbs, and Ahmed Hegazi should be involved with a side that was not only relegated, but finished bottom of the pile. The abject failure of Alan Pardew’s time at the Hawthorns, and tales of unchecked indiscipline, will surely herald the 56 year old’s seamless transition from the dugout to television studio, although Tony Pulis’s knee-jerk defenestration would seem to have set the negative train of events into runaway motion.
My manager of the year award would be shared by Dyche and Crystal Palace’s Roy Hodgson, the latter bringing the Eagles back from the dead after Frank de Boer’s calamitous rein was brought to an early, shuddering halt. The top six virtually picks itself; it will though be interesting to see if Arsenal’s fans end up regretting the outcome of what they’ve long wished. Can A. N. Other reintegrate the Gunners with the sides above, but light years ahead of the North Londoners, or are Wenger’s relative achievements the equivalent of the gold-standard under circumstances that necessitated the servicing of a new, expensive stadium, and owners reluctant to push the boat out to the extent by which now comes as standard on both sides of the Manchester divide.
My final thoughts focus upon Swansea City, a side whose season has been like no other. The league table does not lie, nor reflect a sense of injustice for a side staffed with a squad that isn’t good enough to dine at English football’s top table. Losing the quietly impressive Leroy Fer and mercurial Wilfried Bony to season-ending injuries inevitably clipped the Swans’ wings, but the customary new-manager ‘bounce’ that accompanied Carlos Carvalhal’s appointment went too high, too soon, and could not be sustained by the remainder of Swansea’s squad who at the end were running on empty – talentwise and otherwise. It was always a curious decision to appoint the jovial Portuguese but a disastrous start under Paul Clement had to be arrested, although Carvalhal was not universally viewed as being the man to bring about such an upturn in fortunes. An odd season of bust, boom(whilst flattering to deceive), but a feeling of eventually finishing where they deserved to do so will flood the psyches of Swansea fans with unease for the future. Sunderland’s drop through the divisions is a salutary lesson for all those who think post-relegation that they are too good for the Championship, but that situation relates to a club far larger than the Liberty Stadium outfit. Can Swansea realistically expect to sustain Premier League football in the long term? Perhaps the question is less what is expected, but more what the fans believe they are now entitled to.
Next season is expected to be more of the same, especially if Manchester City secure the services of Leicester’s Riyad Mahrez. Will Mo Salah’s spectacular season be a one off; can Chelsea continue to keep writing off the huge transfer mistakes perpetuated by its multi-layered hierarchy? Had Chelsea signed Oliver Giroud and not Alvaro Morata at the start of the season and retained Ruben Loftus-Cheek instead of sending him out to Crystal Palace, and not signed the inanimate Danny Drinkwater as his replacement, Roman Abramovich could have saved £80-90 million. Overlooking the talents of Salah, Kevin de Bruyne, Juan Cuadrado, and Andre Schurrle proves that Chelsea’s hair-trigger approach has spectacularly backfired, although a post Michael Emenalo era could precipitate a change of philosophy.
Many questions remain, as will there be many not yet envisaged. Manchester City though remain the team to beat, but will further success make Pep a great manager, or one fortunate to have the finest tools of the trade at his disposal?