This season in the Premier League is already like no other. The decline of the holders and the remarkable achievement of Leicester are the two big stories, but in general too, the league has transformed into something far different in its make-up than in seasons past.
Traditional powerhouses have struggled with form and transition, while midtable sides have emerged as threats to more established names – both in one-off matches and league placing. The Premier League is already widely regarded as one of the most competitive in the world, but this season has taken it to to a whole new level of unpredictability.
Things have been slowly changing over the past five years, however. Manchester City’s emergence as a major power – thanks mostly to oil money from the Middle-East – started the shake-up, while the end of Sir Alex Ferguson’s reign at Old Trafford gave yet more transitional qualities. Liverpool’s decline has been noticeable and increased TV money has brought new power to many of the ‘lesser’ sides.
Things have finally come to a head this season, the breaking of the ‘big four’ that has been on-going for the last few seasons now complete. The heyday of the quartet – Manchester United, Arsenal, Chelsea and Liverpool – during the last decade finally trailing off, only Arsenal remaining this season from those.
Of course, Spurs have threatened the ‘club’ before but seem better poised to really cement themselves as a force going forward this term. And the sheer wealth of the owners at Man City means they were always going to infiltrate the top-spots once they established themselves.
But of the four sides that dominated so much of the Premier League coverage in the ’00s, only Arsenal have remained a constant, something that should be to Arsene Wenger’s credit despite the ‘happy with fourth’ mentality that is so often derided.
Man Utd were in decline even before ‘Fergie’ left, only his brilliance as manager keeping them competitive. The failure under David Moyes should not have come as a surprise and we can see from this season the re-building process, despite their own fabulous wealth, will take some time. Chelsea’s campaign is an anomaly to some extent, but they have struggled to make the top four before, finishing sixth the year they won the Champions League in 2012.
Liverpool have perhaps fallen the most, the heady days of consistent top-four finishes, good showings in the Champions League and talk of title-challenges long gone, bar the oh-so-near campaign under Brendan Rodgers. Rafa Benitez may have his detractors, but for large portions of the previous decade he made the Reds consistent challengers both domestically and in Europe.
The money involved in the Premier League may see some gasp in disbelief, the wages of players and staff, the price of tickets and refreshments, the disconnect between players and fans all points of consternation. But for all the damage some may claim it causes, the huge price paid for it’s TV rights have led to the Premier League being able to move away from the ‘boring’ and ‘predictable’ nature it had during the heyday of the ‘Big Four’.
Now we may not see a side ‘do a Leicester’ any time soon, their achievements this season a truly remarkable effort unlikely to be repeated by a club of that size. But they have proved that with some good management, savvy transfer buys and real sense of togetherness, anything is possible. More likely is that clubs such as West Ham, Southampton and Stoke, helped by TV money and good management both at board and pitch level, help to further dissolve the old order.
Money will always rule and bigger sides will undoubtedly be ‘there or thereabouts’ when it comes to honours. But for better or for worse, that cash has levelled the playing field and allowed the Premier League to move away from the same old faces of the past and that we see in many other European leagues and move towards an American-like model, where competition and a more even playing field are actively encouraged and often produced.