Aside from Leicester’s ground-breaking success last season, few teams outside of the traditional elite have broken into the top six over the past decade. The less financially powerful upstarts have been unable to retain a place at the top banquet of English football, despite the occasional peek round the corner to keep the richest, most successful clubs honest.
When Everton and West Ham meet at Goodison Park on Sunday, it will be a battle between two sides who are on the cusp of that top six monopoly. Everton spent many seasons as the leaders of the ‘rest’, while West Ham’s surge in investment and the shrewd appointment of Slaven Bilic saw them finish just outside the top six just last season – and only by a point. Both sides may have envisaged such a success this season too, despite the intimidating strength of the top clubs. So far in this campaign, Everton started well and have fallen off a little, whilst West Ham started dreadfully and are correcting their trajectory.
Five points separate the sides in the table, with Everton occupying a position nine places higher than West Ham. Recent form, however, suggests something enormously different. The Toffees are without a win in four league games, while the Hammers have not lost in three and defeated a vibrant, if understrength, Chelsea side in the EFL Cup in midweek.
If form suggests that Everton will struggle, the relative quality of the two squads tells us something quite different. Everton and West Ham are blessed with talented players throughout, along with two of the better managers outside of the top European clubs. In a game that could boil down to a tactical advantage, Bilic will have his work cut out to out-manoeuvre the intelligent, canny Ronald Koeman.
In their respective projects, the performances in this game will give sound feedback on where the clubs are. Koeman’s rapid improvement of Everton’s side was applauded, as was Bilic’s with West Ham last year, but a recent dip in form raises queries over the longevity of their challenge. These two sides are at a similar point in their development; looking for balance whilst trying to draw the best out of gifted, yet inconsistent, players.
Everton’s position in sixth place might be as good as either of these sides can dream of this season. With Manchester United an inevitable returner to the top spots, even sixth may be a little idealistic. The best teams this year look stronger than in previous seasons, particularly with six teams all looking with a near-equal shout of lifting the title. It is destined to be one of the hardest fought seasons at the pinnacle of the English game and these two teams, along with a couple of notable others, are likely to be competing for the crown as ‘best of the rest’. Greater things are on the horizons for these two hugely ambitious football clubs, this season must be about building rather than fretting over potentially unachievable Premier League aims.