The Premier League is meant to be the most competitive contest in football. Pundits and players alike insist no other country offers the same level of passion, controversy and unpredictability as our very own sporting institution.
It’s a wonderful attraction that is watched by millions across the world but given there are so many sides vying for top spot, is it fair for clubs to measure their success by whether or not they finish in the top 4?
It should be said that Premier League success isn’t the be-all and end-all when gauging a club’s progress but it does have a major say in whether a manager is backed by the club’s owners. Cup success is very important but as Kenny Dalglish recently found out, it doesn’t disguise a team’s shortcomings when 38 league matches have highlighted their more pressing weaknesses. With that in mind perhaps teams should focus their efforts on their league form even if they’re unlikely to triumph.
Fans will probably list the same group of clubs that are likely to challenge at the top this season with Arsenal, Tottenham, Chelsea and Liverpool pushing Manchester United and Manchester City. It’s an obvious set of six teams but since only one of them can be victorious, is it understandable the rest would take pride in simply competing?
Teams judge their success by weighing up their achievements against their ambition but it seems strange that a trophyless fourth place league finish would be deemed more valuable than winning a domestic cup. After all fans enjoy titles and officially there’s nothing achieved by finishing fourth. Of course qualification for Europe’s greatest tournament is prize enough but this isn’t always guaranteed and it doesn’t offer the same prestige as having a title written into the history books.
Arsenal supporters will testify to this and after 8 seasons without a trophy are desperate for some genuine success. Frustration has led to some fans slating manager Arsene Wenger but while their concerns are fairly justified, would they be happy to sacrifice one of their top 4 finishes to finally claim the trophy they crave?
If Liverpool’s sacking of Dalglish is anything to go by then the answer is probably not. Winning the League Cup is something Arsenal have been close to achieving but they wouldn’t have kept faith with Wenger if they were finishing 8th in the league to accomplish it. While some fans berate Arsenal’s stagnating trophy cabinet, others appreciate the fact they’ve consistently qualified for the UEFA Champions League and the financial sustainability that it’s brought to the club. This is particularly important in the business of running a football club but future historians won’t remember the Gunners’ bank balance and instead will note the years they did and didn’t win titles.
Sentiment aside, if one manager is celebrated for a trophyless era of Champions League qualification while another is sacked for winning trophies amidst a truly awful league campaign then the yardstick for success must be finishing in the top 4.
It should be clarified that it’s not simply finishing in the top 4 that is so badly sought after but qualification for the Champions League. Tottenham’s failure to qualify despite finishing fourth has led to many believing they will be unable to keep their best players or continue to compete at the highest level. Money is such a controlling factor in football nowadays that in order to maintain financial stability clubs know it’s more important just to partake in Europe’s elite competition than to actually gain any domestic success.
Chelsea’s tumultuous season would’ve been dismissed as an underachievement had they merely lifted the FA Cup and finished in a disappointing 5th place. Instead their victory against Bayern Munich goes down as the greatest night in their history and no one remembers their unacceptable league form.
It’s a sad state of affairs when clubs would rather finish fourth than win a cup but given the league is so competitive and the rewards so high, it becomes more and more understandable that they prioritise their league form. This may lead to weakened cup sides but if the rewards of winning the cup have been so dramatically dwarfed by the prize of merely qualifying for Europe then clubs have to focus on their bank statement and not their trophy cabinets in they’re are to progress.
Finishing in the top 4 may not guarantee success but it certainly provides a guideline for teams desperate not to fail.