This has been one of the most exciting Premier League seasons in recent memory. The race for the title is a genuinely tight three way slug out, the race for fourth is more alive than it’s ever been in since 4th became something worth racing for and the relegation scrap…well, the relegation scrap is looking bleak for the teams already in those places, but in general, this season has been as open and exciting as an Amsterdam stag weekend. The winning points total will possibly be the lowest it’s been since 2002-03. Manchester United need to win all their remaining games to equal last year’s total of 90 points, which is a big ask even for them. Even if they were to do so, they’d still have lost 6 games, the most for a winning side since 2001. Arsenal would be the same, and were either to lose again and still claim the title it would be the most since 94-95 and equal the largest ever amount of losses in a 38 game Premier League season.
Even in Europe things are looking more competitive. If the Champions League quarter finals go to form we’ll have four different national representatives in the semi’s for the first time since 2004 and whatever the results, it will still be the first to be contested by less than 3 English sides since 2006. So why? Well the obvious answer is; everyone’s just a little bit more rubbish.
Manchester United lost Ronaldo and Tevez in the summer, much to absolutely no one’s surprise. To almost everyone’s surprise though they sit in pretty much the same position as they did at this time last year. Chelsea are a year older, which considering that the average age of their squad is approaching 50 isn’t a good thing, yet they’ve lead the pack for most of the season with a new manager and a new determination after the buoyancy of last year’s spirited end to the campaign. Arsenal lost Emmanuel Adebayor but grew up as a team. They could even afford to loan out golden prospect Jack Wilshere in January without much knock on affect. Thomas Vermaelen has been an undoubted strength though. Liverpool are distinctly less Alonso-y than they were last season, and have suffered as a consequence. The loss of Fernando Torres for long spells to injury has seen a weakening too, as have the losses of Van Persie, Fabregas, Vidic, Ferdinand and Cole at various points to their rivals, whilst Chelsea have the added constant bi-annual annoyance of letting Didier Drogba skip off to Africa for 3 weeks for the Nations Cup.
In fact none of the top four are stronger than they were last year and the only strengthening has happened below them. Only Manchester City has significantly improved. Aston Villa lost their talisman Gareth Barry to Middle Eastlands whilst Joleon Lescott and his odd hair also joined the party from Everton, who’ve been without Arteta and Jagielka for most of the season through injury. Spurs lost Zakora and Bent in the summer and Robbie Keane and Jamie O’Hara in January and whilst finding replacements, only Eidur Gudjohnsen looks actually up to that role, and he was brought in during January. Even dark horses Fulham are pretty much the same side they were last term, and have actually rid themselves of more players than they’ve acquired. So pretty much everyone contesting for actual things, bar City and Birmingham, are worse off, or equal to how they were last year. It’s almost like it’s all cosmically evened out nicely, and we’re getting a thrilling season because of it.
And who do we have to thank for this? Well oddly the most glaringly obvious candidate is the most universally disliked club in world football – Real Madrid. Madrid’s ludicrous spending splurge this summer completely scrambled the market. The top players – the ones the big four would usually be all over – were suddenly priced at around a billion Euros and all wanted to go to Madrid anyway because it looked like such fun. The only team left without any sense were City, who snatched up all the stragglers who weren’t wanted in Spain like a big blue monopoly vulture and everyone else was left to try and get players on the cheap or find some hitherto unknown bargain deal for a prepubescent Belgian prodigy. The Spaniards gimmie gimmie philosophy also hampered the quality of Serie A and Ligue 1 by stealing away their respective star pupils in Kaka and Benzema. Serie A lost its top scorer too, to everyone’s favourite sponsor-free club, Barcelona. Even they are debatably worse off having lost Samuel Eto’o – a player who knew and worked in their system effectively – in the process. Time will tell if Zlatan will be as big an asset, but given he came with a huge price tag, it’ll take a gargantuan effort to justify it, especially as it was seen in some quarters as purely an attempt to keep up with their free spending rivals.
But despite all that, here we are. In the most open title race for yonks, a proper European European Cup and with as many as 5 teams in with a realistic shot of that coveted 4th spot. In the interest of equality, I say let Madrid buy everyone every year. They’ll of course struggle to fit them all in, sack their manager if he doesn’t manage it, flop out of the Champions League to much hilarity after forgetting to buy any defenders and the rest of us will be left with a footballing world of slightly less quality, but much more entertainment. Sounds good to me. Hala Madrid!