Thanks to more and more money in English football, the Premier League is now home to a pile-up in the middle of the table, as teams vie for a place alongside the biggest teams.
Every club in the league, though, would say that they are building. It’s not just the up and coming forces like Stoke who are building something. Manchester United are building something in their transition period, even Arsenal and Manchester City are works in progress. Football is a river that never stops flowing. Even at the end of the season, the champions still have to get ready to defend their crown. It is never ending.
There are probably only two clubs in the world who couldn’t say that they are building something. Barcelona are the champions of everything – surely they can’t build anything. It’s more about consolidation at the moment.
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Bayern Munich would be the other team who can’t really claim to be building anything. They know that they are one of the best teams in the world, and so their aim is to win the Champions League this season. They also know that their manager is leaving at the end of the season.
So the project is coming to an end, and this is the point where it should be at its peak. The building will start again in the summer under Carlo Ancelotti.
But every other team is building now. Manchester United, for all the money they have spent, have a thin squad, bolstered only by untried youngsters with plenty of promise but little in the way of actual current quality. They are the kinds of players that Sir Alex Ferguson would be dropping into the team once a month in order to give them experience. Louis van Gaal is relying on them.
Stoke, by contrast, have spend much less money, but have built a squad in a different way.
United are building from the back, in some ways. Despite the plethora of attacking talent found at the club when Van Gaal took over, many have been shipped out, and the imbalance in the side is that the defence is one of the best in the league, yet the attackers can’t score or even create chances.
Stoke, similarly, have a great defence – only four teams have conceded fewer, including United. But their attack is where the excitement lies.
The difference between the two clubs isn’t just one of perception. It’s one of how they are going about their construction of the team and the team’s identity on the pitch.
Although United have scored more and conceded fewer goals than Stoke, the perception is that United are boring and Stoke aren’t.
But we’re talking about works in progress. Scoring seven goals in their last three games, Stoke have outscored United by six goals in that period. Stoke are a team whose attack is improving on the back of their solid defence. United is a team whose defence is becoming less solid as the attackers can’t capitalise on periods of United dominance.
For Stoke, the basis of the team is the defence Tony Pulis prided himself on. But there is a flair being added to the attack by Mark Hughes.
For United, the defence has been shored up by Louis van Gaal. From a team that looked a mess when they were beaten 4-0 by MK Dons and 5-3 by Leicester City last season, they are a different side. But the attack that had Robin Van Persie, Shinji Kagawa, Javier Hernandez and Adnan Januzaj has been dismantled, and United’s penetration has left with it.
Both teams are building squad, but they are going about it in different ways. And as a result, over the Christmas period, one team has been on the up whilst the other has been sliding down the table.
At the moment, both are firmly part of the ‘middle-class’, middle table pile-up.