As the Premier League’s gap between the top six and the rest becomes more pronounced, the debate has moved onto the polarised nature of the league; the fact there now seems to be one division for those teams who can dominate games and play with the ball, and another who are forced somehow to sit deep and play without it.
That’s a debate borne out of frustration more than anything else. The gap in style, points and trophies pretty much comes down to one thing at the moment; the gap in money. It all seems to stem from that.
And as the first legs of the League Cup semi finals take place this week, it’s natural to feel even more frustration: three of the four semi finalists are top six sides, with the only exception being that of Bristol City, who sensationally knocked out Manchester United at the quarter final stage.
Not to negate the very fine achievement of the Robins in making it this far and rubbing shoulders with three members of the top divisions cream of the crop, but there’s something a little underwhelming about it: over two legs Bristol City beating Manchester City would appear to be nigh-on impossible.
It would be a much more romantic affair if it were a one-off game instead. Either way, the fact that it took such an upset to bring a team outside of the current top six into the semi finals of a competition no one seems to care about shows just where we are.
The Robins’ achievement is a rare feat which will only become even more so as the years go by. The last of such big achievements was Leicester City winning the league, and although not long ago, it certainly feels like a different era in Premier League history already – the final season before the superclub era made its presence felt fully.
Indeed, the Foxes were Pep Guardiola’s side’s last opponents in the competition in a quarter final tie which was characterised by weakened sides from both teams as the league was far and away the most important thing for the Cities of both shades of blue. But Leicester, thanks to reasonably wealthy owners even by Premier League standards and the prestige they’ve been able to build upon as recent Premier League champions are now part of the very small group of teams whom you can characterise as a top flight middle class.
They, Everton and theoretically West Ham and Newcastle United – if the relegation-threatened pair sort their clubs out – are about all you can point to as a genuine grouping of teams who should be finishing below the top six and well above the relegation strugglers. And although football doesn’t work like that, it’s the Toffees and the Foxes who are currently in comfortable positions a safe distance from the bottom three and looking up to seventh place at best.
Surely, though, these teams should be prime candidates for League Cup success. Like Leicester in the Martin O’Neill years, where a safe midtable-to-top-half finish was always secure, cup success should have been the goal: indeed, they managed to get to the final of the competition three years out of the Irishman’s four full seasons in charge. Despite being a competition that the biggest clubs haven’t always taken seriously, it was usually the best chance of silverware for the rest.
Leicester had a chance to change that and didn’t take it, but you can see why. The pressures of the league are such that only a few teams can realistically view the cup as a luxury they can devote time to. On the other hand, the big clubs seemingly now view the League Cup as a competition worth winning now that they’re all competing at the top and all looking for the same honours.
Winning any silverware is now a prerequisite for the big clubs and their super-managers, and so the first trophy of the season presents an opportunity these days, whereas before it was simply a distraction.
And so whilst it would have been great to see Leicester give it a real go with their best players all game against City in the quarter final, and perhaps even make the semi-finals of the competition a more egalitarian affair, it’s easy to see why they don’t: they can’t take risks in the league, nor do they believe they’ll get win a semi final even if they do.
It’s not a go at Leicester, but it leaves you more frustrated than you were before: if the big clubs have wrapped up all the European places in the league, and have both pieces of domestic silverware wrapped up, then just what does that leave for everyone else? The best any other side can do is seventh place and a Europa League qualifying round spot (providing the domestic trophies do indeed go to the clubs who finished first to sixth). That was Everton’s prize last season, and they started their season in July because of it.
As the gap between the rich and the poor plays out in the table and on the pitch, it also might well play out in the interest football generates, too. Surely, at the very least, it’s bad for everyone when the smaller teams aren’t just priced out of the best players and the big honours, but are priced out of hope.