Premier League

The Premier League: From Middle Ground to No Man’s Land

Seeing your team promoted in England can be daunting. At every level, there are big beasts of the game, ready to pick off the minnows that swim into their path.

I remember Huddersfield getting promoted to the Championship in 2013. Suddenly the away days changed from Oldham and Walsall to big fish like Leicester and Derby. It might not sound much, but it was a big step then.

It was even worse this time around. Having got used to Norwich and Nottingham Forest, it was now the sharks of Liverpool and Manchester City.

A small ground of nearly men

It is nothing new to suggest there is a definite Top Six in the Premier League, a group that is almost impossible to break into. Manchester City, Liverpool, Manchester United, Tottenham, Arsenal and Chelsea look set to occupy the highest spots in the table for years to come.

Below them, however, there is a more interesting development. It used to be that there was a collection of teams who would be progressing towards the Europa League positions every season, well away from the threat of relegation; a small group of nearly men, who were either seeing how far they might rise, or tapping gently on the door of the Champions League spot.

Both Everton and Tottenham Hotspur, typically, held this status. Spurs’ knocks were noticed, and they are now firmly inside the top six. For the Toffees, it is a different story.

Between 2006 and 2014, they finished no higher than 5th and no lower than 8th; models of consistency. For most of that time, Aston Villa were with them, and there were other teams that seemed stable and comfortable. Others have occupied it for a spell. It is a level Leicester City appear to be attaining currently.

The rise of the ‘second mini-league’

I mention this ‘second mini-league’ with reason. As I explained earlier, for a promoted side, the Premier League is a trip into a scary unknown. Even Newcastle Utd, who are familiar to this level, are finding new difficulties as they go. Yet all three promoted sides have a decent chance of staying up.

If they were to do so, the former status quo would have been that the best players from those sides would be picked off by the bigger Premier League fish. The likes of Huddersfield would not be able to offer as attractive a season as, say, Watford.

It was the natural order of things; it took time to build yourselves for retaining Premier League survival and once your players had proved themselves, they were off to one of the better two groups of teams.

As clarification; for the promoted sides there was three categories of opponent:

Category A were the big teams, the ones who would tear you apart at will. For some reason, Liverpool seemed to regard losing to a promoted side as a rite of passage, but everyone else crushed them. They might sign your players if they were young.

Category B were that second tier of teams, who could easily smash you four or five nil, but you might get a point one in four times. They might sign your players if they were good.

Lastly came the ‘teams around you’, who were the bread and butter of staying up. Each game against them was a six-pointer, and their results were almost as important as your own. They would sign your players if you were relegated.

With the gradual disappearance of that second tier of clubs to snap up the better players from below, the gap outside the elite sides has closed considerably.

29 games into the season, there are just 10 points between Leicester in 8th and Stoke City in 19th (37-27). For the last two seasons, the equivalent gap has been 19 (43-24) and before that 20 (42-22), 18 (43-25) and 20 (43-23).

TV creates a more level playing field

The evidence of one season can hardly be viewed as conclusive, but it is worth being aware of. The new Premier League TV deal, which created such a scramble for Championship sides to be promoted may have created a more level playing field within the top flight; a larger group of clubs who are able to pay similar transfer fees and wages, and therefore attract similarly able players.

As the comfort of stability has eroded, clubs have reacted differently. Some became complete basket cases. Some hired Sam Allardyce. Unbelievably, some did both. The different approaches bore different fruit.

It is a strange thing, football, and the passage of time is cruel. This time West Bromwich Albion were flying high, and Swansea City looked set to be aiming for that ‘Everton’ level as their Premier League adventure continued. Both castles were built on sand, however, and both are amongst the favourites for the drop a mere 12 months later.

The old rules, it is increasingly apparent, do not apply. In an unexpected way, the reduction of competition in the Premier League is actually service to increase the level of competition, in a way that nobody saw coming; a sort of hyper-Championship played out in the Premier League, when anyone can beat anyone and will do, and if you wait long enough, Sam Allardyce will show up.

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