Having spent £123m himself in the last summer transfer window, it was something of a surprise to hear Antonio Conte declare that winning the Premier League with Chelsea would be his greatest achievement in management, mostly due to the fact that other clubs had spent so much more money than he had.
It’s tempting, then, to suggest that he should go and manage Burnley or Bournemouth instead. You know, if he wants a really great achievement to put on his CV.
Referring specifically to the Manchester clubs ahead of the derby on Thursday night, it seems like the perfect timing on Conte’s part. Have a dig at your rivals when they’re at their lowest ebb – two teams who have spent more than you, squabbling over the last Champions League place. Minor placings are not something the Chelsea boss does, after all: he’s a winner. City and United are bald men fighting over a comb. It’s been years since the Italian was bald.
And yet, he has a point. To a degree, at least, and certainly not the point he wanted to make, either. Winning the Premier League with a top six club is actually far from being easier these days – it’s actually much harder than it’s ever been. Not only are there more clubs with more resources – and therefore more of a danger to clubs at the top – but there are more challengers and rivals, too.
Gone are the days of the top four hegemony, and gone are the days of two-team title races, it seems. Then again, perhaps Chelsea’s dominance this season has obliterated the two horses this time and replaced it with a one-horse race. Still, you get the feeling it won’t be like this next year.
Instead, the Premier League will get another influx of overly-moneyed superstars and Conte will presumably spend millions of pounds once again on bringing in players to help him and his band of plucky underdogs in their attempts to fend off the other sides who have also spent millions of pounds.
That doesn’t necessarily make the Premier League’s elite a completely closed shop. Certainly no more than it ever has been. They used to say that the top four’s dominance would never be broken, but both Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur have proved that it can be done – and done via differing methods – over the course of the last few years. More importantly, Leicester City have gone a step further still, not just breaking the hegemony, but beating it by 10 full points.
That means others can break in – though it might only be for a season or two. Southampton and Everton look like they might have a chance given good seasons and a lot of luck. Crystal Palace’s current form will give them hope – probably not hope of Champions League football but certainly hope of a top six finish. All that needs to happen is for one or two of the teams above to have one off season just like Chelsea and Liverpool last year, who finished 10th and eighth respectively.
But there’s a bigger point to be made about Conte’s insinuations. The Italian coach seems to believe that spending only £123m means you are unlikely to win a title, as if expecting a title and spending anything short of, say, £140m wasn’t a ludicrous flight of fancy. And if that’s true, then we really have made a rod for our own backs: only the very, very top clubs can compete.
And yet, that’s not quite true. There is, after all, a fairly well-defined top six clubs in the country (possibly top seven at a stretch, though Everton will need to prove that by splashing their own cash wisely this summer), and that will surely give those who follow the Premier League something that no other country in Europe has: a genuinely competitive league.
That might be taking things slightly too far. Other leagues are competitive: France and Spain look set to go down to the wire this season, for example. But in terms of big games and looking forward to the season before it begins again next season, you can see six teams getting their act together for long enough to win – and that’s not true anywhere else.
Antonio Conte does have a point then: it may well be his greatest achievement to win the Premier League with Chelsea in this new era of money and power. And it may well be such a feat because of the financial clout of his league rivals. But it’s not because his spending means he starts from a lower platform to any degree: it’s because it’s harder when there are more foes. And that’s exactly what we want from our league.